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While the recommendations of a master in a divorce action are entitled to careful consideration, they are advisory only and are not controlling either upon the lower court or upon the appellate court. An appellate court is required to consider the evidence de novo, pass upon its weight and upon the credibility of witnesses, and reach an independent conclusion upon the merits.
On February 3, 1953, Michael J. Rankin instituted an action in divorce against his wife, Edith L. Rankin. The parties were at that time aged 58 and 43 years, respectively. The complaint originally alleged cruel and barbarous treatment and indignities to the person, but was subsequently amended to include a charge of desertion. After rules for a bill of particulars, and for alimony pendente and counsel fee, were determined, the lower court, on April 5, 1954, appointed a master. On January 3, 1955, the master filed his report recommending a decree on all three grounds. The trial court accepted the master's report and recommendation and entered a final decree. The wife assisted the husband in his coal stripping business because the husband could not read or write. After the parties moved to a farm, the marriage became difficult. The master accepted the credibility of the husband and his witnesses when they testified that the wife physically attacked the husband, removed all the bedroom furniture except a mattress and springs, threw hot water on him, and threatened to kill him. Following the filing of exceptions and argument thereon, the lower court dismissed the exceptions and, on October 10, 1955, entered a final decree. This appeal followed.
Did the trial court err in accepting the master's report and recommendation?
The court found that none of this testimony was credible. Rather, the testimony of the wife and her witnesses, which was rejected by the master, showed that the husband physically and verbally abused the wife, caused the wife serious bodily harm, and refused an attempt at reconciliation. The physical abuse was corroborated by eyewitnesses, a doctor, and a minister. Also, there was no "constructive desertion" where the husband left the home voluntarily and was simply followed by male members of the wife's family. He was allowed to return to retrieve his clothes and refused to speak to the wife when she requested that they talk.