What is a Discretionary Trust?

What is a Discretionary Trust?

The BC Court of Appeal in Putzki v Saunders 2016 BCCA 344 examined the nature of a family property trust and discussed what is a discretionary trust.

A discretionary trust is commonly used in estate planning often  when dealing with infants, disabled people on a government pension, spendthrifts and mentally challenged people of all sorts. The simple idea is that someone else who is neutral and competent manages the assets/ monies held in the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary, typically by paying the interest and some capital from time to time when necessary.

Underhill and Hayton: Law of Trusts and Trustees, 18th ed. (London: LexisNexis, 2010) at 98, describe the nature of a discretionary trust as follows:

Where a beneficiary has no such absolute current right to direct the trustees to pay him an ascertainable part of the net income or capital he has ‘no interest in possession’, only being interested under a discretionary trust. Typically, this is the case where a beneficiary will receive income only if the trustees positively decide to carry out their duty to distribute income by favouring him rather than another member of the class of potential beneficiaries. There is also the atypical case where a beneficiary must receive the income unless the trustees exercise distributive (or dispositive) powers to divert the income elsewhere … or to withhold it …: the discretion-conferring distributive powers prevent an interest in possession arising (eg where B is a life tenant subject to dispositive powers).
66      A discretionary trust is distinct from a fixed trust. The authors of Underhill and Hayton at 98, describe a fixed trust as follows:
Where a beneficiary has a current fixed entitlement to an ascertainable part of the net income or net capital, if any, of the trust fund after deduction of sums paid by the trustees in the exercise of their administrative powers of management, the beneficiary has a fixed interest which ranks as ‘an interest in possession’ under the trust.
67      Unlike a fixed trust, the beneficiaries of a fully discretionary trust and their entitlements (distinct from the potential beneficiaries and their potential entitlements) cannot be ascertained at the time of settlement. A discretionary trust may also come in a variety of forms. Under an “exhaustive” discretionary trust, the trustee must distribute the whole of the income or capital, or both, but retains the power to choose who among the potential beneficiaries should receive distributions, and in what amount. Under a “non-exhaustive” discretionary trust, the trustee has the added power to choose whether or not to make any distribution at all.

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