The Bleak House of Trust and Estate Litigation: More than just time and money

Costs of Litigation“How much is this case going to cost?” is a great first question for a client to ask. The answer, however, can be complex. By the time someone walks into an attorney’s office, they are usually prepared for the fact that it will take time and money to resolve their problem. However, far too few people realize that often the highest price paid during litigation is not necessarily monetary—it’s mental and emotional. This is especially true in the context of probate and guardianship litigation. One might call this the Bleak House price.

Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House (also adapted into a BBC mini-series), famously satirizes the conflict that can ensue from poor estate planning and the emotional distress that frequently follows a loved one’s incapacity. The novel follows the lives of a long list of characters who are dragged into a protracted legal battle for the rights to a will. Whereas the legal battle is never settled, the novel traces the characters as they feud, fight and squabble among themselves for the rights of an estate that surely will never compensate for the emotional costs and injured relationships that result. Bleak House has become synonymous with futile litigation, and was even quoted by Chief Justice John Roberts in the opening paragraph of the United States Supreme Court opinion for the Anna Nicole Smith estate case—the epitome of a hopeless lawsuit.

In a Bleak House dispute, no one wins. While most parties are dissatisfied with the time and money it may take to resolve such a lawsuit, very few fully appreciate the psychological toll this type of litigation has on all parties involved. Studies have shown that both parties to litigation are highly susceptible to anxiety, tension, insomnia, and even depression. These side effects may become even more pronounced in a Bleak House dispute because the arguments are among family and friends.

Judge Learned Hand, one of the most famous jurists in American legal history, once said, “I must say that as a litigant I should dread a lawsuit beyond almost anything else short of sickness and death.” Judge Learned Hand eloquently sums up a fact that any experienced attorney should know: a lawsuit is rarely a preferred outcome. Although litigation is  sometimes necessary, it is advisable to take affirmative measures to prevent future litigation whenever possible. One can protect against a future Bleak House dispute by properly planning one’s estate, drafting competent legal documents, exploring Alternative Dispute Resolution measures, and recognizing that any dispute comes at both a financial and psychological price.

If you have questions about trust and estate planning, or any form of dispute resolution, please contact the experienced legal advisors at MPBA.


  1. I really appreciate the insight here in this post and confident it’s going to be helpful to me and many others. Thanks for your help.

  2. Thank you for this wise insight. I appreciate your giving us a story to explore as a means of anchoring ideas of law into the human heart of everyday life. You so clearly have the client’s “whole being” in mind with your work.