Settlement Pressure and Legal Costs Don’t Justify Shortcuts

by Brian Vertz on March 3, 2013

Judges can hardly be blamed for pressuring divorce litigants to settle their cases. Settlement eases the overcrowded dockets, legal expenses can be minimized, and most parties are more satisfied when they have some measure of control over the outcome. Still, some cases cannot be settled for a variety of reasons. When divorces are litigated, judges and litigants must follow the rules.

In Barnhardt v. Barnhardt, an unpublished decision of the Superior Court, No. 231 WDA 2012 (February 1, 2012), the trial judge and husband were scolded by the Superior Court for failing to follow proper procedures. The master conducted a hearing and recommended that Wife receive 64% of the marital estate but did not determine the value of the assets. The trial judge urged the husband and wife to agree upon the appropriate values, and if they could not, the court offered to schedule a meeting or hearing.

On appeal, the Superior Court held that the trial court’s order was not appealable because it did not finally dispose of the parties’ claims. The Court also warned husband, who represented himself in filing the appeal, that his poorly drafted brief could have resulted in a complete dismissal of the case. The Court stated that “Husband’s perspective [is] that the cost of legal representation is prohibitive … [but] in recognition of the long term value, [Husband should] adjust [his] budget so that legal counsel can be retained.”

The Court also questioned how the trial court could have determined the percentage division of marital property without determining its value under Section 3502 of the Divorce Code. Holding that the trial court did not provide an adequate explanation, the Superior Court quashed the appeal and remanded to the trial court.

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