Navigating a High Conflict Divorce

Many divorce attorneys will attest that a large percentage of divorces start out with pain and conflict. Regardless of the “cause” of the divorce, each spouse will point the finger at the other, blaming him or her for the demise of the marriage. Accusations of verbal abuse, poor money management, adultery, or over-controlling family members will often enter the picture.

Once the divorce papers are officially filed, there may be threats about child custody and property division. Often, joint credit cards will be frozen or closed, and sometimes bank accounts will be completely emptied in haste. It’s not uncommon for bitter spouses to make irrational decisions before they learn about their rights and obligations under California’s divorce laws. Over time however, each spouse’s divorce attorney tries to rationalize with their client and explain the importance of being civil and reasonable.

As the first few weeks of a divorce become a few months, usually emotions tend to calm down. Even if the spouses cannot stand to be in the same room together, they are encouraged to communicate with each other in a civil manner, especially if the couple has minor children. Occasionally, bitter breakups heal over time and spouses find a newfound respect for each other as friends and co-parents.

Enter the High Conflict Divorce

A high conflict divorce on the other hand, is a whole other story. In a high conflict divorce, both spouses can be actively escalating the tension between each other. In most toxic divorces, however, one spouse is trying to reach a marital settlement agreement that both sides can live with, while the other spouse is outright refusing to cooperate. In the meantime, the uncooperative spouse is wreaking havoc all over the place.

Common examples of toxic behavior in a high conflict divorce:

  • Maxes out the couple’s joint credit cards.
  • Hides money from their spouse.
  • Rants on social media about the divorce.
  • Destroys their spouse’s property.
  • Badmouths their spouse to others.
  • Stalks and harasses their spouse.
  • Alienates the children from the target parent.
  • Threatens the target spouse.
  • Does things to humiliate or embarrass the target spouse.
  • Shows up to their spouse’s work and damages the spouse’s reputation.

While high conflict, toxic divorces can happen to anyone, they frequently occur with high-net-worth couples, who can afford to drag things out in court. The high conflict divorce leads to divorce litigation and it lasts longer than a collaborative divorce. Some of them can go on for years! Even if a wealthy couple can afford to go to court, that doesn’t mean it’s any less stressful on the parties involved. Divorce litigation is emotionally and financially draining, but it would be folly to say there isn’t a time and a place for it sometimes.

When Bitter Spouses Escalate Tension

As we mentioned earlier, it’s not uncommon for one of the spouses to be particularly unreasonable and “uncooperative.” In these cases, the toxic spouse is threatened by the target spouse’s attempts to move on with their life. When the target spouse gets a place of their own, spends time with family, or finds a new job, the former spouse becomes jealous or enraged and he or she tries to spread their toxicity to the people in their ex’s life.

If you are in a toxic divorce or if you anticipate one because you know your spouse, you want to find a divorce attorney who is familiar with divorce litigation and predicting the worst possible outcome based on a spouse’s irrational behavior. Such behaviors may include parental alienation, harming the target’s good reputation, denying access to marital funds, and withholding spousal or child support. In a high conflict divorce, it’s critical that the target spouse be represented by a lawyer who knows how to minimize and counteract the effects of this behavior.

If the toxic spouse frequently disregards the temporary orders, or is constantly creating a toxic situation, the target’s divorce attorney should use the court system to take swift action against the toxic spouse to put him or her in check. For example, if a toxic spouse refuses to pay child support, the judge on the case can have his or her wages garnished.

Using a Trustee in a Toxic Divorce

When a wealthy couple is locked in a high conflict divorce, enlisting a trustee can prove to be very helpful. A trustee is an attorney who helps a couple dissolve their marital assets, such as the marital home, vehicles, fine art, boats, vacation property, retirement accounts, and pensions. Typically, it’s unrealistic to expect a toxic spouse to be “fair” when it comes to dividing marital assets. Thus, it can be advantageous to enlist the help of a non-biased third party, such as a trustee who can decide how the marital assets should be divided in accordance with California’s community property laws.

A High Conflict Divorce is Bad for Your Health

It’s no secret that stress is bad for your health. If you anticipate a toxic divorce, it can wreak havoc on many aspects of your life, including your health, your career, and your personal relationships with friends and family. If you are the target spouse, it’s critical that you take care of yourself by eating right, exercising, and by getting sufficient rest. Even if you’re working a lot to stay distracted or caring for your children, don’t forget to carve time out for yourself every day so you can stay sharp and refreshed.


If you’re in a high conflict divorce, we understand that it’s very challenging. For the dedicated support you need, contact Claery & Hammond, LLP to meet with a Los Angeles divorce attorney. Our legal team is highly skilled in both collaborative divorce and divorce litigation.


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