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10 Tips to Prepare for "High-Conflict" Divorce Court

Ways to decrease stress and increase empowerment.

Key points

  • Court is intimidating, especially for those who do not have a law degree or understanding of the law.
  • When your split is unfairly labeled "high-conflict," it can feel like you aren't getting a fair chance.
  • Following some tips can improve focus and help you stay goal-oriented.
Source: VBlock/Pixabay
Source: VBlock/Pixabay

Unless you have a legal background, courts can be very intimidating. So is trying to navigate the court system while fighting for protection during a child custody or divorce battle. When your split is unfairly labeled "high-conflict," it can feel like you aren't getting a fair chance, and justice—or even escape—can feel impossible.

Most of my clients start the process already stressed, scared, and overwhelmed with the post-separation abuse they are dealing with. The court system only exacerbates any feeling of helplessness or overwhelm and can feel retraumatizing—especially for those who are not prepared. During this time, I work with my clients on ways to maintain self-composure and prepare for the event, which increases self-empowerment. You can never know what will come in court, but you can take steps to best prepare yourself for the unknown.

These tips help empower my clients psychologically and emotionally during a stressful time:

1. Prepare an emergency kit for your day in court. Pack it a couple of days in advance, and double-check the night before to avoid scrambling the morning of. These items could be in a purse or other small bag, but they should be separate from your paperwork. Here are some suggestions of what to pack:

  • A small water bottle, clear if possible. Some courts will not allow non–see-through bottles.
  • Breath mints. Avoid gum; judges usually do not like the sight of people chewing gum.
  • A granola bar or protein bar—something you can chew quietly and fast between breaks.
  • At least two pens with black or blue ink.
  • A highlighter.
  • A small notebook or loose paper to take notes.
  • Any medicine you might need for the day, including pain medicine for unexpected (or expected!) headaches.
  • A spare hair tie, or spare contacts if needed.
  • Lip balm. Courtrooms can be dry and cold, and try or cracked lips will be even more distracting.
  • Cash in the form of small bills. Many court offices will expect you to pay for copies, which can add up. There are also sometimes unexpected expenses like parking or if you need to purchase water or coffee.

2. Dress professionally. Think of what you would wear to a job interview, but make it as comfortable as possible. Here are some tips:

  • Go with something loose-fitting, but tailored professionally. You will be sitting on hard benches for hours, which can be uncomfortable in tight clothing.
  • Stick to solid, neutral colors: black, navy, brown, gray, or white. Avoid bright, flashy colors or clothing with large words or symbols.
  • Do not wear very high heels or shoes that are loud or uncomfortable.
  • Do not wear jeans or sneakers. Courts are very traditional and often see this as a sign of disrespect.
  • Avoid any body spray or strong cologne.
  • Dress in layers: Bring a cardigan or professional, clean sweater in case the courtroom is chilly.
  • Tie your hair back and out of your face.
  • Wear simple, non–eye-catching jewelry.
  • A watch is a good idea, as many courtrooms do not allow cell phones, and there is no guarantee there will be a clock that is easily visible.

3. Show up early. I recommend getting there at least a half hour early. It may take time to find parking, use the restroom, review your notes, and take deep calming breaths before everything starts.

4. Leave cell phones and anything metal or dangerous—pocket tools, pepper spray, etc.—in the trunk of your car. You will most likely have to go through metal detectors, and they often make you bring these things back to your car. Save yourself the trip by planning ahead.

5. Always be polite and respectful to everyone you interact with, from the parking attendant to the guard at the door to the bailiff and judge. Courts are very traditional. Use “ma’am” and “sir” whenever appropriate. Offer “please” and “thank you” to everyone. Always address the judge as “your honor.”

6. Use your fear and worry as motivation. All feelings exist in us to serve a purpose. Every time you feel them—fear, nervousness, anger—let them be your motivation to keep going. Without these feelings, most people would never think to prepare, would not fight back against malicious allegations, and might just give up.

7. Stick to short sentences and minimal, objective details. Do not over-explain or provide extra details unless asked. Judges get impatient if the responses are long-winded and overly detailed. They do not care about the backstory or history between you two unless it is immediately relevant to the particular case.

8. Do not insult, bash, diagnose, or label your ex. Refer to them by their name or their courtroom role (plaintiff or defendant) but never terms like “narcissist” or “abuser.” Practice discussing behavior patterns instead of feelings.

9. Have realistic expectations. Remember who you are dealing with and the type of person they are. They want a war, not compromise. Do not hold out hope that they will suddenly act reasonably or compassionately.

10. Be open to feedback, but keep the focus on your own case. Ask your lawyer, “What is the weakness in my case?” Then, focus on those areas, knowing the opposing counsel will likely exploit them if possible. It is better to be prepared.

Adapted, in part, from my book It's Not High Conflict, It's Post-Separation Abuse: When Abusers Weaponize the Courts as a Form of Retaliation.

If you or someone you love is experiencing domestic violence, call 800-799-7233.

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