The Master System in Maryland

If you have a family law case in Maryland that involves child custody, visitation, support or alimony, you will likely appear before a master. Learn more about the master system below.

What is a Master?

The use of masters is an old tradition, as they were originally appointed English kings to act as assistants to the chancellor. Today, masters continue to act as assistants by hearing matters for judges who have overloaded dockets. The purpose of seeking the advice and recommendations of a master is to conserve the court’s time and resources, and serve as many cases and parties as possible.

Maryland Rule 2-541 specifies the method for appointing masters, which are considered officers of the court. Under that rule, there are two different types of masters: standing masters and special masters. Standing masters are appointed by a majority of the judges of the particular circuit court and may serve either full or part-time. A standing master may not continue to serve after reaching the age of 70 years. Special masters are appointed for a particular case, and the court may specify or limit their powers.

What Types of Cases are Referred to a Master?

Under Maryland Rule 9-208, if a court has a full-time or part-time standing master for domestic relations matters and a hearing has been requested or is required by law, the following matters will be automatically referred to a master unless the court directs otherwise in a specific case:

  • uncontested divorce, annulment or alimony actions
  • support of dependents
  • pendente lite (temporary) alimony and child support
  • preliminary or temporary possession or use of the family home or personal property
  • pendent lite custody and visitation, or modification of a custody or visitation order
  • modification of an existing alimony order
  • modification of an existing order regarding the use or possession of the family home or personal property
  • civil contempt relating to either party’s noncompliance with a court order regarding custody, visitation, alimony, support or use and possession of the family home or personal property
  • a stay of earnings withholding
  • a request for attorney’s fees and court costs in any action before the master, and
  • any other domestic matter or any other matter set forth in the court’s case management plan.

How does the Master make Recommendations?

The master will need to hold a hearing and receive evidence. The master has the power to regulate all proceedings in the hearing, including:

  • issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to attend hearings and produce documents or other tangible things
  • administer oaths to witnesses and examine witnesses
  • decide whether evidence is admissible
  • convene, continue or adjourn a hearing
  • recommend contempt proceedings or other sanctions, and
  • recommend findings of fact and conclusions of law.

What Happens After the Hearing?

After the hearing, the master will notify the parties of the proposed recommendations, either orally - at the conclusion of the hearing - or by written notice, which is typically mailed to the parties between 3-30 days after the hearing. If either party disagrees with the master’s proposed recommendation, he or she may file exceptions. This must be done within 5 days of receiving the oral or written recommendation.

The master must also prepare a written report in support of and in addition to the recommendations if the court directed the master to do so, or if either party files an exception.

The exceptions must be in writing and must specifically state what the master's alleged error was. The parties then attend an “exceptions hearing” before a judge who reviews the proceedings below and makes an independent judgment. The judge may affirm, reverse or modify the master's recommendations.

Conclusion

In most family law cases, the master system provides a good alternative to the court process. The master system allows litigants in domestic cases to get to court faster than if they had to wait for a judge. And, the exceptions process still allows you to have your case decided by a judge in case you don’t agree with the master’s decision.

There are variations in the process from county to county. If you have specific questions about the master system in your area, you should check with the local clerk of the circuit court to determine their particular rules, or contact a local family law attorney for help.

Resources

MD Rule 2-541(c)

MD Rule 9-205

MD Rule 9.208

Updated by: , Attorney

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