A trust is a three-party fiduciary relationship in which the first party, the trustor or settlor, transfers (“settles”) a property (often but not necessarily a sum of money) upon the second party (the trustee) for the benefit of the third party, the beneficiary.
A testamentary trust is created by a will and arises after the death of the settlor. An inter vivos trust is created during the settlor’s lifetime by a trust instrument. A trust may be revocable or irrevocable; in the United States, a trust is presumed to be irrevocable unless the instrument or will creating it states it is revocable, except in California, Oklahoma and Texas, in which trusts are presumed to be revocable until the instrument or will creating them states they are irrevocable. An irrevocable trust can be “broken” (revoked) only by a judicial proceeding.
The trustee is the legal owner of the property in trust, as fiduciary for the beneficiary or beneficiaries who is/are the equitable owner(s) of the trust property. Trustees thus have a fiduciary duty to manage the trust to the benefit of the equitable owners. They must provide a regular accounting of trust income and expenditures. Trustees may be compensated and be reimbursed their expenses. A court of competent jurisdiction can remove a trustee who breaches his/her fiduciary duty. Some breaches of fiduciary duty can be charged and tried as criminal offences in a court of law.
A trust is created by a settlor, who transfers title to some or all of his or her property to a trustee, who then holds title to that property in trust for the benefit of the beneficiaries. The trust is governed by the terms under which it was created. In most jurisdictions, this requires a contractual trust agreement or deed. It is possible for a single individual to assume the role of more than one of these parties, and for multiple individuals to share a single role. For example, in a living trust it is common for the grantor to be both a trustee and a lifetime beneficiary while naming other contingent beneficiaries.
Trusts have existed since Roman times and have become one of the most important innovations in property law. Trust law has evolved through court rulings differently in different states, so statements in this article are generalizations; understanding the jurisdiction-specific case law involved is tricky. Some U.S. states are adapting the Uniform Trust Code to codify and harmonize their trust laws, but state-specific variations still remain.
An owner placing property into trust turns over part of his or her bundle of rights to the trustee, separating the property’s legal ownership and control from its equitable ownership and benefits. This may be done for tax reasons or to control the property and its benefits if the settlor is absent, incapacitated, or deceased. Testamentary trusts may be created in wills, defining how money and property will be handled for children or other beneficiaries.
While the trustee is given legal title to the trust property, in accepting title the trustee owes a number of fiduciary duties to the beneficiaries. The primary duties owed include the duty of loyalty, the duty of prudence, and the duty of impartiality. Trustees may be held to a very high standard of care in their dealings in order to enforce their behavior. To ensure beneficiaries receive their due, trustees are subject to a number of ancillary duties in support of the primary duties, including duties of openness and transparency, and duties of recordkeeping, accounting, and disclosure. In addition, a trustee has a duty to know, understand, and abide by the terms of the trust and relevant law. The trustee may be compensated and have expenses reimbursed, but otherwise must turn over all profits from the trust properties.
There are strong restrictions regarding a trustee with a conflict of interest. Courts can reverse a trustee’s actions, order profits returned, and impose other sanctions if they find a trustee has failed in any of its duties. Such a failure is termed a breach of trust and can leave a neglectful or dishonest trustee with severe liabilities for its failures. It is highly advisable for both settlors and trustees to seek qualified legal counsel prior to entering into a trust agreement.
Chart of a trust
- Appointer: This is the person who can appoint a new trustee or remove an existing one. This person is usually mentioned in the trust deed.
- Appointment: In trust law, “appointment” often has its everyday meaning. It is common to talk of “the appointment of a trustee”, for example. However, “appointment” also has a technical trust law meaning, either:
- the act of “appointing” (i.e. giving) an asset from the trust to a beneficiary (usually where there is some choice in the matter—such as in a discretionary trust); or
- the name of the document which gives effect to the appointment.
The trustee’s right to do this, where it exists, is called a power of appointment. Sometimes, a power of appointment is given to someone other than the trustee, such as the settlor, the protector, or a beneficiary.
- ‘As Trustee For’ (ATF): This is the legal term used to imply that an entity is acting as a trustee.
- Beneficiary: A beneficiary is anyone who receives benefits from any assets the trust owns.
- ‘In Its Own Capacity’ (IIOC): This term refers to the fact that the trustee is acting on its own behalf.
- Protector: A protector may be appointed in an express, inter vivostrust, as a person who has some control over the trustee—usually including a power to dismiss the trustee and appoint another. The legal status of a protector is the subject of some debate. No-one doubts that a trustee has fiduciary If a protector also has fiduciary responsibilities, then the courts—if asked by beneficiaries—could order him or her to act in the way the court decrees. However, a protector is unnecessary to the nature of a trust—many trusts can and do operate without one. Also, protectors are comparatively new, while the nature of trusts has been established over hundreds of years. It is therefore thought by some that protectors have fiduciary duties, and by others that they do not. The case law has not yet established this point.
- Settlor(s): This is the person (or persons) who creates the trust. Grantor(s) is a common synonym.
- Terms of the Trust means the settlor’s wishes expressed in the Trust Instrument.
- Trust deed: A trust deed is a legal document that defines the trust such as the trustee, beneficiaries, settlor and appointer, and the terms and conditions of the agreement.
- Trust distributions: A trust distribution is any income or asset that is given out to the beneficiaries of the trust.
- Trustee: A person (either an individual, a corporation or more than one of either) who administers a trust. A trustee is considered a fiduciaryand owes the highest duty under the law to protect trust assets from unreasonable loss for the trust’s beneficiaries.
Trusts may be created by the expressed intentions of the settlor (express trusts) or they may be created by operation of law known as implied trusts. An implied trust is one created by a court of equity because of acts or situations of the parties. Implied trusts are divided into two categories: resulting and constructive. A resulting trust is implied by the law to work out the presumed intentions of the parties, but it does not take into consideration their expressed intent. A constructive trust is a trust implied by law to work out justice between the parties, regardless of their intentions.
Common ways in which a trust is created include:
- a written trust instrumentcreated by the settlor and signed by both the settlor and the trustees (often referred to as an inter vivos or living trust);
- an oral declaration or promise;
- the willof a decedent, usually called a testamentary trust; or
- a court order (for example in family proceedings).
In some jurisdictions, certain types of assets may not be the subject of a trust without a written document.
The formalities required of a trust depends on the type of trust in question.
Generally, a private express trust requires three elements to be certain, which together are known as the “three certainties”. These elements were determined in Knight v Knight to be intention, subject matter and objects. The certainty of intention allows the court to ascertain a settlor’s true reason for creating the trust. The certainties of subject matter and objects allow the court to administer trust when the trustees fail to do so. The court determines whether there is sufficient certainty by construing the words used in the trust instrument. These words are construed objectively in their “reasonable meaning”, within the context of the entire instrument. Despite intention being integral to express trusts, the court will try not to let trusts fail for the lack of certainty.
- A mere expression of hope that a trust be created does not constitute an intention to create a trust. Conversely, the existence of terms of art or the word “trust” does not indicate whether an instrument is an express trust.Disputes in this area mainly concerns differentiating gifts from trusts.
- Subject Matter. The property subject to the trust must be clearly identified (Palmer v Simmonds). One may not, for example state, settle “the majority of my estate”, as the precise extent cannot be ascertained. Trust property may be any form of specific property, be it realor personal, tangible or intangible. It is often, for example, real estate, shares or cash.
- The beneficiaries of the trust must be clearly identified,or at least be ascertainable (Re Hain’s Settlement). In the case of discretionary trusts, where the trustees have power to decide who the beneficiaries will be, the settlor must have described a clear class of beneficiaries (McPhail v Doulton). Beneficiaries may include people not born at the date of the trust (for example, “my future grandchildren”). Alternatively, the object of a trust could be a charitable purpose rather than specific beneficiaries.
A trust may have multiple trustees, and these trustees are the legal owners of the trust’s property, but have a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries and various duties, such as a duty of care and a duty to inform. If trustees do not adhere to these duties, they may be removed through a legal action. The trustee may be either a person or a legal entity such as a company, but typically the trust itself is not an entity and any lawsuit must be against the trustees. A trustee has many rights and responsibilities which vary based on the jurisdiction and trust instrument. If a trust lacks a trustee, a court may appoint a trustee.
The trustees administer the affairs attendant to the trust. The trust’s affairs may include prudently investing the assets of the trust, accounting for and reporting periodically to the beneficiaries, filing required tax returns and other duties. In some cases dependent upon the trust instrument, the trustees must make discretionary decisions as to whether beneficiaries should receive trust assets for their benefit. A trustee may be held personally liable for problems, although fiduciary liability insurance similar to directors and officers liability insurance can be purchased. For example, a trustee could be liable if assets are not properly invested. In addition, a trustee may be liable to its beneficiaries even where the trust has made a profit but consent has not been given. However, in the United States, similar to directors and officers, an exculpatory clause may minimize liability; although this was previously held to be against public policy, this position has changed.
In the United States, the Uniform Trust Code provides for reasonable compensation and reimbursement for trustees subject to review by courts, although trustees may be unpaid. Commercial banks acting as trustees typically charge about 1% of assets under management.
The beneficiaries are beneficial (or ‘equitable’) owners of the trust property. Either immediately or eventually, the beneficiaries will receive income from the trust property, or they will receive the property itself. The extent of a beneficiary’s interest depends on the wording of the trust document. One beneficiary may be entitled to income (for example, interest from a bank account), whereas another may be entitled to the entirety of the trust property when he attains the age of twenty-five years. The settlor has much discretion when creating the trust, subject to some limitations imposed by law.
The use of trusts as a means to inherit substantial wealth may be associated with some negative connotations; some beneficiaries who are able to live comfortably from trust proceeds without having to work a job may be jokingly referred to as “trust fund babies” (regardless of age) or “trustafarians”.
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