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FIELD v. FIELD (2021)

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Appeals Court of Massachusetts.

Amy FIELD v. Matthew R. FIELD.


Decided: March 03, 2021

By the Court (Massing, Sacks & Grant, JJ.1)


Amy Field (wife) filed a complaint for divorce against Matthew R. Field (husband) in the Probate and Family Court. The judgment of divorce nisi incorporated the report of a special master finding that $228,536.78 of a $350,000 home equity line of credit (HELOC) obtained by the husband and secured by the marital home had been used for marital purposes. Based on the master's report, the judge ordered the husband to pay the wife $121,463.22 to reimburse her for the proceeds of the loan that did not represent joint marital debt. On appeal, the wife disputes the special master's findings with respect to $75,248.52 and argues that the judge erred by adopting the disputed findings in the final judgment. We affirm.

The parties disagree over the applicable standard of review. The wife contends that because the master relied entirely on documentary materials in making his findings, this court should review his findings de novo.2 Indeed, in many contexts where a trial judge makes findings and conclusions based entirely on documentary evidence, appellate review is de novo. See, e.g., Stamper v. Stanwood, 339 Mass. 549, 551 (1959) (where case turned on validity of marriage that had taken place over one hundred years before, and “all the evidence of substantial importance is documentary,” court decided questions of fact de novo); Erickson v. Clancy Realty Trust, 88 Mass. App. Ct. 809, 810 (2016) (in reviewing declaratory judgment that public way had been discontinued, judge's “decision as to questions of law, and questions of fact based entirely on documents” reviewed de novo); Central Mut. Ins. Co. v. True Plastics, Inc., 84 Mass. App. Ct. 17, 18-19 (2013) (in determining coverage of insurance policy submitted to trial judge for decision based solely on documentary evidence, appellate review de novo). None of the cases cited by the wife, however, involve review of a master's findings.

The review of proceedings referred to a master in the Probate and Family Court is governed by Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 53 (h) (1), which provides, “In an action to be tried without a jury, the court shall accept the master's subsidiary findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous, mutually inconsistent, unwarranted by the evidence before the master as a matter of law or are otherwise tainted by error of law.” This standard of review applies to the trial judge in the first instance and to the appellate court thereafter. See Chase v. Pevear, 383 Mass. 350, 359 (1981) (“The master's findings of fact are binding on the Probate Court and on us unless mutually inconsistent, contradictory, plainly wrong or vitiated in view of the controlling law”). “[E]ven general findings, so far as they are findings of fact, will not be disturbed unless clearly erroneous.” Id. at 360. To require the trial judge, or an appellate court, to conduct a de novo review of a master's fact finding would “defeat[ ] a principal objective of referring a case to a master: delegation of the fact-finding function.” Miller v. Winshall, 9 Mass. App. Ct. 312, 313-314 (1980).3

The husband asserts that because the proceedings before the master were not transcribed, the master's findings are insulated from review altogether under Mass. R. Dom. Rel. P. 53 (h) (3), which provides, “The court will not review a question of law dependent upon evidence before the master unless the evidence was recorded by a stenographer and a transcript of so much of the proceedings before the master as is necessary to dispose of the objections adequately is served, together with the objections, upon every other party.” The husband may be correct with respect to cases in which objections to the master's findings are based on testimony that was not transcribed. See Allen v. Allen, 25 Mass. App. Ct. 515, 522 (1988). Here, where the master heard no testimony and issued two reports concerning his findings, the trial judge was capable of reviewing those findings under the applicable standard, as are we. See Lewis v. Desrosiers, 13 Mass. App. Ct. 997, 998 (1982) (“Where a transcript of the evidence is not reported, both the trial judge and the appellate Justices are required to treat the master's findings of fact as binding unless they are clearly erroneous, mutually inconsistent, contradictory or vitiated in view of the controlling law”).

The master's findings addressed a purely factual question: how much of the proceeds from the HELOC were used for marital purposes. The parties agreed that $126,415 was used to pay off the previous home equity loan. The master allowed $102,121 of marital expenses claimed by the husband, including the contested $75,248.52, and disallowed $98,000. Approximately $23,500 was not accounted for. Because “[t]he passage of time and absence of documentation [did] not permit [him] to explain this sum,” the master declined to credit it to the husband. Thus, the husband was required to reimburse the wife a total of $121,463.22.

There is no dispute that the contested $75,248.52 was used for improvements to the marital home. The wife contends that the sum was erroneously attributed to the HELOC because it was paid out of the parties’ joint checking account and not directly from the HELOC. In his second report, the master explained that he based his findings on proof of paid bills, photographs of the work done, and an accountant's note indicating that $200,000 had been transferred out of the HELOC. In response to the wife's objection that there were no “cancelled checks clearly indicating that the source of payment was [HELOC] money,” the master stated that “the payments in question were made many years ago and bank records are not available to either side.” He found “that the proof provided meets the [husband's] burden of proof.”

The master's finding that the contested home improvement payments originated from the HELOC was supported by the evidence and was not internally “inconsistent or contradictory, much less plainly wrong.” Campo Corp. v. Lawrence, 362 Mass. 865, 865 (1972). While the evidence on which the master based this finding was not free from all doubt, it was sufficient to permit the inference that the contested funds could be traced to the HELOC. We are not “left with the definite and firm conviction that a mistake had been committed” (quotations and citation omitted). Pollock v. Marshall, 391 Mass. 543, 554 (1984).

We are not persuaded by the wife's assertion that the master misplaced the burden of proof, or that because the husband “fraudulently” obtained the HELOC, any gaps in the evidence must be construed in her favor.4 To the contrary, the master consistently imposed the burden of proof on the husband. Indeed, in the master's initial report, because $23,500 was not explained, the master found that the husband failed to prove it was used for marital purposes. Nor is this a case where the facts “lie peculiarly in the knowledge of a party” (quotation and citation omitted), Knowles v. Gilchrist Co., 362 Mass. 642, 651 (1972), as both the husband and the wife had access to the HELOC and its statements over the course of many years.

In short, the master did not commit clear error in finding that the contested funds were used for marital purposes, and the judge did not err in adopting the master's findings.

Judgment affirmed.


2.   Inconsistently with her position that we should review the master's findings de novo, the wife filed a motion to strike the husband's supplemental record appendix, which includes documents submitted to the master. Were we to undertake de novo review, we would require the materials in the supplemental record appendix to place us “in as good a position as was the [master] to decide questions of fact.” Stamper v. Stanwood, 339 Mass. 549, 551 (1959).

3.   A less deferential standard of review applies to a master's legal conclusions. See Pollock v. Marshall, 391 Mass. 543, 555 (1984) (“To the extent that the master's ultimate findings are conclusions of law, they are subject to independent judicial review”).

4.   The wife cites no authority for this assertion. Although the master found that the HELOC documents “bore the signature of Amy Field,” but “[s]he did not execute it,” the husband also points out, and the record confirms, that the wife was aware of the HELOC after it was obtained, had access to its documentation, and used it herself to write checks and to obtain funds.

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