Go to the Master's Hearing to determine the Equitable Distribution of the Marital Property
A date will be set for a Master's Hearing on the equitable division of the marital property. At that hearing, the Master will read a memorandum of law written by each side and look at any evidence or documentation either side chooses to provide. This hearing is not recorded and the rules for evidence are not the same as in front of a real judge. Based on what the Master reads, and hears, and responses to her/his questions, s/he will make a Recommendation on the division of the property.
YOU decide if you think that the Master's Recommendation is just or fair.
The parties can agree to this recommendation or try to negotiate something different. Remember, YOU DO NOT HAVE TO AGREE to the recommendation if you feel it is unjust or unfair and DO NOT LET ANYONE IN THE Hearing Room, including the Master or even your own lawyer, make you feel as if you have to accept the recommendation. BUT keep in mind that is a significant possibility that you will get less of the property in a hearing in front of a judge, BUT STILL do not let yourself be intimidated by the Master, who may tell you something such as that s/he has done up to 10s of 1000s of such cases and 90% of have been settled by the Master's Recommendation. If you decide that the Master's Recommendation was not just or fair and are willing to take the risk of getting even less, you have the absolute right to appeal for what is called a trial de novo in front of an actual judge.
What is a Trial de Novo?
A trial de novo is an actual trial conducted in front of a real judge. "De Novo" means "new." So basically, you get a new hearing. But this is a trial, so now most of the rules governing a trial apply. The proceedings will be recorded. Under PA law, you always have the right to appeal to the Superior Court (the first level of appellate court after this trial de novo.) Other aspects such as the rules of evidence will also apply.
When you receive the Master's Recommendation, carefully decide if you agree with it.
If you do not agree with the Master's Recommendation and were unable to come to an agreement at the hearing, let the Master know. It can take anywhere from one week to three months for the Master to write her/his report. The Report will then be mailed to you and in the cover letter will tell you until what day you have to file a Motion for a Trial de Novo. The Master's Recommendation will include a discussion of why the Master decided the way s/he did on each issue. It will also include an UNSIGNED ORDER that will be signed by the Court if no one requests a trial de novo within the stated time. Read the Master's reasoning and consider what points, if any, you feel are wrong either in terms of not following the law or are factually wrong or otherwise not established by the other party or your valid point was not taken into account.
Filing a Motion for a Trial de Novo
If you feel there are real flaws with the Recommendation and are willing to risk receiving less of the marital property depending on how the Judge decides, you may file a Motion for a Trial de Novo. Each county has its own rules for what a Motion for a Trial de Novo must look like. In some places you can file what is known as a Praecipe or an actual Motion. (Note that a motion will consist of the Motion itself, which includes a caption, a certain lists of facts, and a request for the trial de novo, an blank Order with fill in the blanks for the Court to grant you the hearing if it chooses to do so, and a Verification which you sign certifying that all statements you have made are correct.
Should you use a lawyer or file yourself?
You may file such a motion yourself by following guidelines that are available on-line, in a county law library or at the domestic relations court depending on the county. Even though the filing for a trial de novo is pretty much the same across the state, please note that each county has its own local court rules. It is best if you use an attorney, however, as this is an actual trial. If you do so, that attorney will enter her/his appearance with the Court as your attorney and will file the motion for the trial de novo for you according to the local county rules.
Some minor details to know about actually filing the Motion for a Trial de Novo
It is very important that whomever files the motion do so by the date stated on the Master's cover letter. All filings that are not electronic (family court in Philadelphia, Montgomery and Bucks County do not use electronic filing yet) are filed with the Prothonotary's office. Family Court may have a separate Prothonotary's Office than the regular or other courthouses, so make sure you file with the Prothonotary's Office for your particular domestic relations issue. Also, even though the office hours may go till 4:30 or something like that, the filing may have to be made up to one hour before closing and this is more true when there is a filing fee involved. (There should not be a fee for a Lawyer's Entry of Appearance of the Motion for the Hearing de Novo.) You will receive a date-stamped copy of the filing (make sure you get the date-stamped copy.) Sometimes you will have to deliver a copy to the Master's Office in the courthouse at the same time.
After you file the Motion for a Trial de Novo, mail a copy promptly to the other side.
After you file the motion and receive your date-stamped copy, it is your responsibility to mail a copy of all the papers that you filed to the other side. If your spouse is represented by an attorney then you must mail it to her/his attorney of record. If s/he is not represented by an attorney, then you must mail a copy of all filings directly to them at a valid current address. If an Attorney has entered on your behalf, then the attorney will send a copy of the Motion and her/his appearance notice to the opposing counsel or to the other party if they are not represented by an attorney.
If either party is represented by a lawyer, then the other side can only communicate with your lawyer!
Once you are represented by an attorney, your spouse's attorney may no longer communicate with you directly - all phone calls, letters, filings, and any other communications must be made directly to your attorney. The same is true for your spouse. If s/he is represented by an attorney, your attorney may not contact her/him directly and must instead send all commuunications to her/his attorney. It is permissible for you or your spouse, however, to contact each other directly but not to contact the other sides attorney. If you do feel as if you want to contact your spouse directly, however, please discuss the reasons and possible consequences with your attorney first. Also, if you are represented by an attorney, you two have to work together to make the best attempt to achieve your goals in the case. Please make sure you do not send documents or otherwise give information too your spouse or her/his attorney without first talking to your attorney.
Wait to hear if a Trial de Novo has been granted and then notify the other party promptly.
If the court accepts your motion for a trial de novo, they will sign an order stating the date, time and courtroom of the new hearing and will mail it to the party of record who requested the hearing, which will be either you or your attorney if you used one. Again, immediately upon receiving such notice, it is you, or your attorney's, responsibility to promptly mail a copy of the order granting the trial de novo to the opposing party. If the signed order is sent directly to your attorney without a copy to you, your attorney will also send a copy to you. (Make sure your attorney always sends you copies of official date-stamped court documents for your own records.)