Beneficiaries may Demand Early Distribution of Trust Property

The beneficiaries of a trust may be able to compel the trustees to wind up the trust and distribute the assets before the distribution date actually contemplated by the trust.

Many people want to maintain control over their assets and their legacy, even after death. They may have concerns about a child or other beneficiary receiving their bequest immediately or all at once. They may believe the beneficiary is too young to receive their inheritance immediately, or they may have concerns that the beneficiary will spend all of the money inappropriately if they receive it all at once.  There may be concerns about the beneficiary’s lifestyle or mental health.

This control can be maintained through the use of a trust provisions, either as part of a will or as a separate trust. For example, a will may provide that a child’s share of the estate is to be held in trust, with set amounts or percentages of the bequest to be paid out when the child reaches certain ages. A trust may provide that the child’s share cannot be paid out until a given date, but in the meantime the trustee may make distributions in their discretion, or for certain purposes such as education.

The beneficiary may find this frustrating. They may resent that they have to wait until they attain a certain age, or that they have to approach a trustee to request a discretionary distribution from their inheritance. A beneficiary in this position may have a remedy.

If all beneficiaries are of full capacity (i.e. they are independent adults), then they may call for the extinguishment of the trust, notwithstanding the settlor’s expressed wishes. This is referred to as the rule in Saunders v. Vautier.

For example, consider if a settlor established a trust for their child, which provided that the child would not receive the estate until they reached the age of 30. Once the child is an independent adult, they could, under the Rule, demand that the trust be wound up and the assets immediately distributed.

Another example: if a settlor established a trust for their three children, which provided that each child would not receive their share until they reached the age of 30, and if any child did not reach the age of 30 then that child’s share would be divided among the remaining children, then all three children (once they are independent adults), could demand that the trust be wound up and the assets distributed to them.

No court order or approval is technically required when the Rule applies. The beneficiaries may demand that the trustees deliver the trust property, and the trustees must comply. However, in practice most trustees want to ensure that they will not face any liability for winding up the trust early and acting contrary to the express language of the trust, and so they will often seek the direction and approval of the court confirming that they should proceed with the beneficiaries’ request.

The Rule only applies when all of the beneficiaries are adults with capacity. This is often not the case. For example, a trust may be intended to benefit all of the settlor’s grandchildren who have been born by a particular distribution date. If the trust is wound up early, there may be unborn grandchildren who would have benefitted had the trustees waited until the distribution date. Another typical example is a trust to be distributed to a child at some future date, but if the child is not alive on that date then to any children of that child who are alive at that date. There are contingent beneficiaries that may benefit if the trustees wait until the proper distribution date.

In B.C., the Trust and Settlement Variation Act [RSBC 1996] Chapter 463 addresses this situation.   If property is held in trust, the court may approve any arrangement or variation of the trust on behalf of any person having an interest in the trust, whether vested or contingent, who by reason of infancy or other incapacity is incapable of providing consent under the Rule in Saunders v. Vautier. The Act also allows the court to approve an arrangement on behalf of unborn beneficiaries or other persons who may become beneficiaries in the future.

However, the court must not approve an arrangement or variation of the trust on behalf of these classes unless the carrying out of it appears to be for the benefit of that person.

Revisiting one of the examples above: a settlor establishes a trust for their children, which provides that each child will not receive their share until they reached the age of 30, and if any child does not reach the age of 30 then that deceased child’s share would goes to their children (i.e. the settlor’s grandchildren) in equal shares. If the three children want to wind-up the trust before the distribution date (assuming they are all capable adults), they would need the court to approve the wind-up on behalf of their children (born and unborn). The beneficiaries would have to show some reason why the proposed wind-up and distribution would also benefit their children.   This may require creative arguments.

In summary, beneficiaries may not be bound by the timelines for distribution established by the terms of the trust.  They may have remedies to obtain an early distribution.