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September 5, 2023
Dealing With High Conflict Personality Divorce In Court

As societal dynamics shift, the legal landscape is encountering a surge in cases involving individuals with high conflict personality, especially in the context of divorce in California and other states. In this informative video, Carla Hartley, a seasoned attorney with a rich experience in the realms of family and probate law, delves deep into the intricacies of high conflict personality in court.

High conflict personalities can drastically impact the proceedings and outcomes of divorce cases, particularly when they intersect with custodial matters. A high conflict personality divorce often involves one party placing blame, not taking accountability, and using the court as a stage to dramatize their perceived injuries.

But what exactly is a high conflict personality disorder? And why has its prevalence seemingly risen post-COVID, leading to an increase in individuals taking unreasonable positions within the legal system?

Carla Hartley addresses these pressing concerns and brings attention to the challenges that legal practitioners face when dealing with high conflict personality in the courtroom. She emphasizes the need for clarity and restraint in labeling individuals, cautioning against loosely terming them as “narcissists” or “sociopaths” without professional diagnosis – terms that hold no water in court. As Carla emphasizes, employing a preemptive strategy can drastically reduce the opportunities for confrontation, thus diminishing the immediate reward that high conflict personalities often seek in court.

Engaging experts to objectively evaluate assets like businesses and homes can streamline the process and prevent unnecessary disputes. Furthermore, tackling individual issues separately can significantly reduce conflict, as can seeking therapy or coaching tailored to dealing with high conflict personality dynamics.

The complexity and emotional toll of divorce cases featuring high conflict personalities necessitate collaboration across the legal community. Carla Hartley invites viewers to contribute insights, share resources, and engage in a broader dialogue to develop strategies to navigate this challenging area of law. For those enduring the tumultuous waters of a high conflict personality divorce in California and beyond, Carla Hartley’s insights offer a beacon of hope and a roadmap towards a resolution.


What is a high conflict personality? Are we seeing a rise in high conflict personalities in society at large, and more to the point, in our courts, especially in our divorce and custodial proceedings? These are questions we should discuss.

My name is Carla Hartley. I’m an attorney licensed to practice in Texas and California. And for most of my career, I have practiced primarily in the family and probate spaces.

High Conflict Personalities

Let’s talk about high conflict personalities. This is something that I believe since COVID, we have just seen such an increase in… in the failure to settle and the increase of people who are just absolutely taking unreasonable positions with the court. Sadly, we’re seeing some attorneys just enable these personalities with their tactics in the court.

Reducing the Conflict

I want to talk about what we see as a high conflict personality and what we can maybe start talking about doing to reduce the conflict, reduce the reward that these personalities are getting out of this fight that they are pursuing and persevering with in our court system.

A high conflict personality can have a lot of different traits, a lot of different traits. We have a lot of people coming in to us and saying, “Yeah, I read this book and my– my husband, my wife is a narcissist. They’re just a classical narcissist.” We have people coming in and saying, “Yeah, I talked to my therapist about this. My therapist thinks my ex is or my future ex is, you know, a narcissist or a sociopath or whatever.”

These aren’t diagnoses. They’re not diagnoses that are admissible in court, which is even more important. So we want to be very careful about throwing that out there. The fact of the matter is, when you’re going through a divorce, you’re doing it because you don’t like the other side anymore for the most part. Or the other side has decided they don’t like you.

If it’s mutual and you both want to just move on, that tends to be your easiest divorce. If it’s not mutual and one of you doesn’t want to move on, that tends to be a problem. The biggest problem we have is when the one who does not want to move on is your high conflict personality. This is the person who blames you for everything, blames you for the divorce, blames you for every problem you had during the marriage, takes accountability for absolutely nothing. And this is the kind of person who really wants to dramatize… dramatize and play out the drama, play out their injuries before the court.

This is a problem and we’re seeing it impact our cases more and more. So what can we as attorneys and what can we counsel our clients to do that would reduce the rewards that these high conflict personalities are obtaining in court? I’ve been really studying this lately. The expert who has written most of the books on this and who I know has given classes to judges in several states and someone that I’ve been following and reading and I’m actually afraid to mention his name because I don’t have permission. But there’s a lot of information out there on this. And while we as attorneys cannot diagnose it, we can look at someone and just say, okay, I don’t know if they’re a narcissist. I don’t know that for sure. But it sure looks to me like we’ve got an HCP, a high conflict personality.

Once you’ve determined that and you can determine that based on, you know, some conversations with your client. There are certainly some good resources that you can give your client to read and to assist you with. But once you think that you’re in there, that should inform the way you take the next steps.

You want to start reducing the opportunity for confrontation with your client. You want to start reducing the opportunity for that immediate reward that comes from them running into court and badmouthing your client to the sun, the moon and the starry sky. Unfortunately, you cannot control what the other side is going to do. You can try and for the most part, you can be fairly successful in reducing their rewards.

Preemptive Declarations and Preemptive Motions

So, one part of that is when you know you have an HCP on the other side and you start anticipating, you start getting the idea that they’re setting your client up for something, you start working on your responsive deck or preemptive declaration, preemptive motion, as soon as possible. Because the one thing that you want to do is make sure that when this blows up, if it blows up, if you can’t stop it from blowing up, you’re going to be able to walk into court with your paperwork fully prepared.

Countervailing Evidence

One of the things the HCPs like to do is find an attorney who will pound the table on their behalf and, “Oh my gosh, yes, I can get you this. Yes, I can get you that.” They’re not asking for evidence, they’re taking everything at the word of the HCP. There’s not a lot to support it. If you have the countervailing evidence and you’re kind of tuned into this, you can produce a really good volume, but you’ve got to be working on it before your ex-parte notice comes in.

When your client gets the notice or you get the notice that you have to appear tomorrow in order to defend on paperwork you haven’t even seen yet, you need to be able to anticipate what’s coming. That requires some communication with your client. That requires knowing this is coming and having identified this person as an HCP. Yes, are we gazing into a crystal ball? Yes. Is it difficult? Yes. Does this mean you’re going to be overprepared sometimes? Yes. But the alternative is far, far worse.

Involve Experts

Now, what else can we do? Involve experts to the extent– And I’m not talking about so much, I’m not talking so much about going straight to a custodial evaluation because that rewards the HCP. Okay. They can drag that out for months and it can just be very difficult, very expensive. What I’m talking about involving experts is if we have a business, let’s get an expert to value the business. If we have a house, let’s get an expert to value the house.

Let’s not argue about this stuff. Let’s just have an expert determine it. Then to the extent possible, if we have arguments about the character of the property, limit your arguments to small, discrete arguments.

Bifurcation: Addressing Discrete Issues in Court with High Conflict Personality

There is a mechanism in all states, whereas you– where you can bifurcate or separate for an individual trial on specific issues that if you show the court that you are going to be able to resolve the rest of the case. But for this one issue, this one issue is holding up the whole thing like a row of dominoes, then you can– you can often get the court to give you the trial on that one issue. This will reduce conflict.

Now, we’ve had– we’ve had cases where we get that one issue done and, and the whole case settles because we’ve taken the wind out of the sails of the HCP because this just has not been rewarding.

There are other cases where we can prevail on that one issue and we are still going to have to fight over everything down to how much a jar of oregano costs and who got the jar of oregano. That’s frustrating. We don’t like to do it. The judges don’t like to do it. And frankly, you shouldn’t have to do it. At this point it’s like just let him have the jar of oregano. Who cares? Right?

The Role of Therapy in Dealing with High Conflict Personalities

But that part is getting your client, the client who is not the HCP into therapy, into some type of coaching with a therapist who knows how to tell your client to cope with and to deal with this HCP. They have to know how they can change their actions, especially if there are kids involved. So that they are not rewarding the HCP, they are not giving that person what they want. And that is when a really, really competent therapist, really educated in this area, really experienced in this area can be just the difference between night and day in your case.

This therapist may never– probably will never go to court. This therapist’s job is to teach your client to navigate communication with the HCP. And in some– in some cases, we will have them telling us, you know, we think that– that this is a bad route to take. It’s going to increase because this is this person’s hot button.

These therapists can be hired as our experts. Most often they’re hired as simply the client’s therapist and we never talk to them. We may ask the client to discuss a few things with them under the cloak of privilege. But for the most part, this is someone who is just an expert in dealing with this personality type.

And I will say that there have been occasions when I have gone to someone as an expert, a qualified therapist, as an expert to guide me with handling some HCPs. This is not time that is poorly spent. This is extremely valuable time. It saves your client money, it saves you a tremendous amount of aggravation, and it may actually prevent children from being sucked into the whirlwind of a really, really dramatic three-year odyssey. There’s nothing that’s going to benefit those kids by that.

Reduce Rewards for Bad Behavior

So, no, we can’t change the HCP. We cannot make them calm, but we can reduce the rewards that they’re getting for their bad behavior. I don’t have all the answers. I’m going to continue to study this. If anybody out there thinks they have the answers, I would love to be referred to another book or another workshop or another individual who can start helping us with this. Because these people are clogging up our legal system. These people are especially prevalent in the divorce and custodial actions that we have to go through. We have to– I love the area of law in which I practice.

They’re also very prevalent in a lot of the probate cases when you’re trying to get custody of one of our seniors or guardianship of a child and their estate. And this is a person who just feels entitled to the whole shootin’ match.

We need to know how to deal with the personality that is driving this. And although we are counselors at law, we’re not the kind of counselors who can figure out how to handle someone’s emotions in order to deny them rewards.

Contact a Family Law Attorney in California and Texas

For that, we need other experts. I think I’ve got a pretty good one. I think I can refer people to a couple other good ones. But I think this is something we’ve got to figure out as a legal community and find a way to start working around it. My name is Carla Hartley and I hope this has been helpful.

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