Parenting Coordination/Special Master
Having a special master is another alternative dispute resolution option.
The following is an excellent description of this process.
The Special Master in Post Divorce Families
Parent Information Sheet
Prepared by the Marin County Task Force on Special Masters, 1994
Using a Special Master to help make decisions about your child(ren) can be a useful
alternative to repeatedly going to court and having a judge make decisions.
Joan B. Kelly, Ph.D.; Revised 1999
A Special Master is a mental health professional, mediator or family law attorney, who specializes
in helping parents resolve disputes about what is best for the child(ren) and there continue to
be disagreements about such issues as schedules, overnight visitation, choice of schools,
extracurricular activities, troubles at the point of transferring the child(ren), holiday
scheduling, the handling of the child(ren)'s behavior, religious training, health issues, and
problematic behaviors on the part(s) of one or both parents. Most often the family has already
participated in a custody/access evaluation. When parents hire a Special Master, they give the
Special Master the power to make binding decisions about their child(ren).
Parents must first agree to use a Special Master and agree to a specific person. The parents then
submit a stipulation to the court that names the Special Master, defines what issues the Special
Master has the power to make decisions about and defines how long the Special Master will perform
their job. This stipulation becomes a court order.
After a Special Master has been ordered, he/she will want to meet the parents, perhaps meet the
child(ren) and review evaluations and other documents that will help them get to know the family
and the types of problems that have come up in the past. With some Special Masters and with some
families, there will be regular meetings; in other families or with other Special Masters,
meetings will happen when a problem arises. When a dispute occurs, the Special Master first tries
to help the parents mediate the problem. The Special Master might want to get other information
such as the child(ren)'s opinion, information from doctors, therapists, schools or other
caretakers. If the parents cannot come to an agreement, the Special Master then makes a decision.
When the decision is about a big issue, the Special Master's written decision is filed with the
court. If one parent is opposed to the decision, they can file a motion in a timely manner, and
the decision will be reviewed in a hearing by the court. The decision stands and is in effect
until further order of the court. For major decisions, such as a change in legal or physical
custody, a decision about one parent moving away or a significant change in the visitation
schedule, the Special Master will submit a recommendation (not a decision) to the court. The judge
will review the recommendation at a hearing and make a decision.
Hiring a Special Master is a serious matter, but can be very helpful. It is especially helpful for
families who continue to have frequent disagreements, families where parents remain very angry at
each other, and families where there are very young children who require changes in scheduling,
and families where the parents need to share information with each other but find it hard to do
that without getting angry. Special Masters are also useful in families where parents have
concerns about drugs, alcohol, child abuse, or the stability of the other parent.
Once you decide to have a Special Master, and have named that person in a court order, you may be
"stuck" with that person for the whole term that is defined in the order. If both parents find
that the Special Master is not helpful, they can agree to fire the Special Master. If the Special
Master feels that he/she cannot be helpful, he/she can resign. However, if only one parent is
unhappy with the Special Master, that parent cannot fire the Special Master. If the Special Master
makes a decision that seems wrong to one parent or if the Special Master acts in a manner that
seems unprofessional, the parent should first talk with the Special Master about their complaints.
If the parent is still unsatisfied, they should submit a written statement of their complaint to
the two attorneys, the Special Master, and to the other parent. The Special Master will meet with
the parent and their attorney. If the complaint is still not resolved after that meeting, the
parent can make a motion to the court to have the Special Master removed. The judge will then
review the complaint and make a decision.
Just like judges, a Special Master is protected by "quasi-judicial immunity." That means that a
Special Master cannot be sued, their records cannot be subpoenaed and they cannot be made to
testify about their decisions. The reason for giving the Special Master this protection is that
they may be making decisions that one parent may not like. If every time they made a decision that
was unpopular they could be sued, professionals would soon stop doing this type of work.
The Special Master's goals are somewhat different than that of a judge. A judge's job is to make
decisions that are legally sound and in the best interest of the child(ren). A Special Master's
job is to focus on the child(ren)'s best interests, but also help families learn effective problem
solving strategies, to learn how to communicate well with each other, to learn more about child
development, and sometimes, how to understand their feelings about the other parent and develop
trust in each other. Whenever possible, a major goal is to help families develop better skills so
they do not need a Special Master and the power to make decisions about their child(ren) can be
put back in their hands.
The parents pay the fees for the services of a Special Master. Most Special Masters request a
retainer when they begin their work with a family. Before a Special Master is appointed,
the judge will decide what portion of the fee each parent will pay. However the Special Master may
adjust this division of payment in special circumstances.