Legal Dictionary

trust law

Definition of trust law

Further reading

In common law legal systems, a trust is a relationship between whereby property (real or personal, tangible or intangible) is held by one party for the benefit of another. A trust conventionally arises when property is transferred by one party to be held by another party for the benefit of a third party, although it is also possible for a legal owner to create a trust of property without transferring it to anyone else, simply by declaring that the property will henceforth be held for the benefit of the beneficiary. A trust is created by a settlor (archaically known, in the context of trusts of land, as the feoffor to uses), who transfers some or all of his property to a trustee (archaically known, in the context of land, as the feoffee to uses), who holds that trust property (or trust corpus) for the benefit of the beneficiaries (archaically known as the cestui que use, or cestui que trust). In the case of the self-declared trust, the settlor and trustee are the same person. The trustee has legal title to the trust property, but the beneficiaries have equitable title to the trust property (separation of control and ownership). The trustee owes a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, who are the "beneficial" owners of the trust property. (Note: A trustee may be either a natural person, or an artificial person (such as a company or a public body), and there may be a single trustee or multiple co-trustees. There may be a single beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries. The settlor may himself be a beneficiary.).

The trust is governed by the terms under which it was created. The terms of the trust are most usually written down in a trust instrument or deed but, in England, it is not necessary for them to be written down to be legally binding, except in the case of land. The terms of the trust must specify what property is to be transferred into the trust (certainty of subject-matter), and who the beneficiaries will be of that trust (certainty of objects). It may also set out the detailed powers and duties of the trustees (such as powers of investment, powers to vary the interests of the beneficiaries, and powers to appointment new trustees). The trust is also governed by local law. The trustee is obliged to administer the trust in accordance with both the terms of the trust and the governing law.

In the United States, the settlor is also called the trustor, grantor, donor or creator. In some other jurisdictions, the settlor may also be known as the founder.

Basic principles

Property of any sort may be held on trust, but growth assets are more commonly placed into trust (for tax and estate planning benefits). The uses of trusts are many and varied. Trusts may be created during a person's life (usually by a trust instrument) or after death in a will.

In a relevant sense, a trust can be viewed as a generic form of a corporation where the settlors (investors) are also the beneficiaries. This is particularly evident in the Delaware business trust, which could theoretically, with the language in the "governing instrument", be organized as a cooperative corporation, limited liability corporation, or perhaps even a nonprofit corporation. One of the most significant aspects of trusts is the ability to partition and shield assets from the trustee, multiple beneficiaries, and their respective creditors (particularly the trustee's creditors), making it "bankruptcy remote", and leading to its use in pensions, mutual funds, and asset securitization.

Creation

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. Implied trusts 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.

Typically a trust can be created in the following ways:

  1. a written trust instrument created by the settlor and signed by both the settlor and the trustees (often referred to as an inter vivos or "living trust");
  2. an oral declaration;
  3. the will of a decedent, usually called a testamentary trust; or
  4. 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.

Formalities

Generally, a trust requires three certainties, as determined in Knight v Knight:

  1. Intention. There must be a clear intention to create a trust (Re Adams and the Kensington Vestry)
  2. Subject Matter. The property subject to the trust must be clearly identified (Palmer v Simmonds). One may not, for example, settle "the majority of my estate", as the precise extent cannot be ascertained. Trust property may be any form of specific property, be it real or personal, tangible or intangible. It is often, for example, real estate, shares or cash.
  3. Objects. 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.

Terms

  • 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.
  • Protector. A protector may be appointed in an express, inter vivos trust, 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 responsibilities. 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.
  • Trustee. A person (either an individual, a corporation or more than one of either) who administers a trust. A trustee is considered a fiduciary and owes the highest duty under the law to protect trust assets from unreasonable loss for the trust's beneficiaries.

References:

  1. Wiktionary. Published under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.



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