The process of equitable distribution is multi-stage, often involving one or more conferences with a “master” specifically assigned to the case and who is an expert in equitable distribution. The master develops a recommendation which can be accepted by the parties; negotiated further, or; rejected outright by one or both parties who take exception to it and move the matter to an equitable distribution trial before a judge. The recommendation is just that – a recommended outcome – and while the master’s recommendations often closely mirror the outcome determined by the judge, they are not dispositive and they are not binding once the parties go before a judge.
Due to the propensity for the trial court to seemingly adopt the master’s determination, litigants can get confused as to the weight afforded the recommendation by the trial court or fail to understand that the trial court has no obligation to incorporate in part or in whole the recommendation. It is against this reality that the Superior Court recently issued a non-precedential (i.e., it cannot be cited as law) opinion highlighting the trial court’s ability to fashion an outcome dissimilar from the master’s recommendation.
The case, Waterstone v. Waterstone, Memorandum Decision, No. 444 MDA 2014 (Pa.Super. November 13, 2014), involves the trial court’s decision to deviate from the master’s recommendation on the allocation of marital debt. Wife received 60% of the marital estate and while the master allocated only 20% of the marital debt to Wife, the trial court – recognizing the disproportionate amount of the assets awarded to Wife – decided to allocate 40% of the debt to Wife. Wife’s arguments for a greater portion of the debt going to Husband are persuasive – she alleges that the bulk of the debt was due to gambling and repairs made to automobiles that he was keeping. Nevertheless, the trial court declined to consider the manner in which the debt was accumulated; it cited the well-settled law that since the debt was accumulated during the marriage it is subject to equitable distribution.
Wife’s reliance on the master’s recommendation was misplaced. Though both the master and the judge were considering the same equitable distribution factors, the judge is ultimately making findings of facts and conclusions of law. The trial court judge may make, in his/her discretion, determinations on credibility and evidentiary determinations. What may have persuaded a master at the equitable distribution conference may not have been admitted into evidence at trial.
Though it is unstated, the master’s hearing may well have been a non-record hearing; meaning there was no transcript taken establishing evidence on the record which could be relied upon at the trial level. Absent that record, the trial court would have been the opportunity to place on the record all of the essential facts for the trial court to consider. The trial court, affirmed by the Superior Court, made their own independent decision on the distribution of the assets and liabilities and Wife lost her appeal.