What Is Binding Arbitration?

January 12, 2018 | Alternative Dispute Resolution, Divorce, Legal Perspective

Icon for author Heather Trostle Smith Heather Trostle Smith

Binding arbitration may sound very scary to someone looking for an alternative way to resolve his or her divorce. (And, that’s on top of the already scary situation of the divorce itself.)  However, if you know what you are getting into by agreeing to arbitration, the process can have many positives over and above the more traditional process of litigating through the court system.

In a binding arbitration, the parties will each present their best case to a neutral person who decides — once and for all — how their claims will be resolved. Yes, the court system works in a similar way. However, almost every ruling by a judge can be subject to appeal by a higher judicial authority. If a party doesn’t like the decision of the master, it can be appealed to a judge. If a party doesn’t like the decision of the judge, it can be appealed to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. If a party doesn’t like the decision of the Superior Court, the party can ask the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to review it. As you can imagine, this process can exhaust endless amounts of time and money.

If, however, you opt for binding arbitration, that’s exactly what you get. The decision reached by your arbitrator binds you and your estranged spouse, and there is no higher power from which to seek a different decision. This is provided for by the Pennsylvania Uniform Arbitration Action and the Pennsylvania Courts that have interpreted it:

The award of an arbitrator in a nonjudicial arbitration which is not subject to Subchapter A (relating to statutory arbitration) or a similar statute regulating nonjudicial arbitration proceedings is binding and may not be vacated or modified unless it is clearly shown that a party was denied a hearing or that fraud, misconduct, corruption or other irregularity caused the rendition of an unjust, inequitable or unconscionable award.

42 Pa.C.S.A. § 7341 (emphasis added).  “The arbitrators are the final judges of both law and fact, and an arbitration award is not subject to a reversal for a mistake of either.”            Garango v. Terminix Intern. Co., L.P., 784 A.2d 188, 193 (Pa. Super. 2001) (internal citations and quotes omitted). Thus, neither the appellate court “nor the trial court may retry the issues addressed in arbitration or review the tribunal’s disposition of the merits of the case.”  F.J. Busse Co., Inc., v. Sheila Zipporah, L.P., 879 A.2d 809, 811 (Pa. Super. 2005), appeal denied, 587 Pa. 694, 897 A.2d 457 (2006) (quoting McKenna v. Sosso, 745 A.2d 1, 4 (Pa. Super. 1999), appeal denied, 563 Pa. 677, 759 A.2d 924 (2000)).

What about child support and custody?

It should be noted that while an arbitrator can decide financial issues and can even hear and decide custody disputes so long as you and your estranged spouse agree, Pennsylvania law is clear that the court can undo a decision affecting child support or custody where the court is convinced that the child’s interest was not protected.

Such an outcome means you need to pay attention to the process getting to the final decision. The first step is making sure you select a quality arbitrator. The most skilled arbitrators will be knowledgeable and experienced family law attorneys themselves and will come at a commensurate price. The expense of the arbitrator — which is decided by the arbitrator him or herself — can be paid by one party, divided between the parties themselves, or divided between the parties by the arbitrator. And, while the upfront expense for the arbitrator’s time will be more than the court costs to be before a master or a judge, the finality of the process can outweigh what you could pay in continuing legal fees.

Is arbitration faster?

Beyond finality, speed is another benefit to the binding arbitration process. While the Pennsylvania State Legislature has finally seen fit to reduce the waiting period before you can get a divorce to one year, if you have any economic issues to resolve (i.e. Who gets what?  How much alimony is going to be paid?) all that means is you have to wait a year before the court will grant you an audience to begin to discuss resolution of those economic issues. By contrast, if you can agree to enter into binding arbitration, you and your estranged spouse can pick when you want to start and how quickly you want to go. Unlike the court system, your pace is limited only by the availability of you, your spouse, your lawyers and the arbitrator — not the availability of the judge and the multitude of other parties and lawyers filling the judge’s docket.

Binding arbitration can offer a more expeditious and less expensive approach to resolving the myriad of issues in a divorce. If closure is an important goal to you and your estranged spouse, using an arbitrator may get you there sooner.

How do I contact Pittsburgh divorce arbitration lawyers?

It’s important to understand the arbitration process fully. A Pittsburgh divorce arbitration lawyer can explain the differences and help you make the best decisions for your particular case. Brian C. Vertz, a partner at our family law firm, is a certified arbitrator with more than 25 years of matrimonial law experience and an impressive list of accolades and certifications to match, including certification as a valuation analyst and author of a nationally recognized handbook on tax-related divorce issues. To discuss your case with Brian or any of our other alternative dispute resolution attorneys at Pollock Begg Komar Glasser & Vertz LLC, call us today at (412) 471-9000 or fill out our online contact form.

About the Author

Tapped to present educational workshops and lectures both within the legal industry and other outside business associations, Heather Trostle Smith is a partner at Pollock Begg. Her practice spans multifaceted family law issues including complex financial circumstances and high net worth individuals.

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