I was recently asked why a trust deed for a family discretionary trust (FDT) contained this somewhat unusual means of qualifying as a discretionary beneficiary (DB) of the FDT:
any person who makes a donation of (some minimum amount) to …
As the questioner rightly observed, this mechanism readily allows someone outside of a family specified as the DBs, in the main, of a FDT to become a DB. Wouldn’t that mean that a FDT with this mechanism is not or can’t be a family trust?
The answer to this depends on what is meant by family trust.
Certainty of objects necessary for validity of a trust
The thinking behind this kind of provision is that a trust deploying a beneficiary by donation mechanism such as above in its trust deed will be valid.
Certainty of objects is essential for validity of a trust in Australia: Kinsela v. Caldwell (1975) HCA 10. Objects, that is who are or what are to benefit from the trust, being:
- beneficiaries; or
- charitable purposes;
must be certain in a valid trust.
It is clear law that a trust (other than a charitable trust) must be for ascertainable beneficiaries.Re Vandervell’s Trusts (No 2)  Ch 239 at 319 per Lord Denning
When DBs are specifically named or family members qualify by virtue of specified family relationships in a trust deed of a FDT, who qualifies as a beneficiary under the FDT generally presents no uncertainty. It is where classes of beneficiaries are wider and looser that problems of certainty arise and can cause a trust to fail for invalidity. For instance, in R. v District Auditor exparte West Yorkshire Metropolitan County Council (1986) 1 RVR 24, an English Court found a trust, where the class of beneficiaries was expressed as 2½ million inhabitants of West Yorkshire, was invalid as the class was too large and was thus uncertain.
It follows that a beneficiary by donation mechanism for DBs in a trust deed of a FDT can readily meet the certainty of objects requirement. A person either has or has not made the requisite donation and so the trustee can perfunctorily ascertain that the person is a DB under the mechanism once the person has made the specified donation. Similarly every person who:
- has not made the specified donation;
- is not named as a DB; or
- is not in any other class of DB;
under the trust deed can be categorised not as a DB of the FDT with certainty.
There are limits to this though.
Or just a gift?
Where the beneficiary by donation mechanism in the trust deed is to a charity then the trustee can observe a donation by the prospective beneficiary. Sometimes I have seen trust deeds where the beneficiary by donation mechanism is a minimum donation not to a charity but to a beneficiary of the trust! A question arises here whether a payment of the minimum amount to qualify as a beneficiary under the mechanism is a donation, or is simply a gift (or perhaps a reimbursement agreement! see below), because the recipient beneficiary is not in need. A donation may need to be both a gift and a gift made to a recipient understood by the donor to be in need based on what a donation is commonly understood to be. Beneficiaries of private trusts in Australia are often well-heeled and are clearly not in need.
It may then follow that the donor does not qualify as a beneficiary of the trust because the donor has not made a donation.
Understanding then that an appropriately constructed beneficiary by donation mechanism for DBs in a FDT, which DBs are not necessarily members of the specified DB family in the trust deed, will not compromise the validity of the FDT as a trust, is it still fair to say that a FDT with this mechanism is still a family trust, that is a trust for a family, in substance?
FDTs as matter of course include charities as objects either so:
- the trustee with discretion to choose who takes trust property can favour a charity as well as or instead of named beneficiaries and their family members; or
- FDT income or capital does not become bona vacantia. That is before trust property reverts to the state as ownerless when the trustee doesn’t, can’t or doesn’t wish to exercise its discretion to distribute the property to a DB of the FDT, a charity or often a wide range of charities are able to take trust property under the trust deed of a FDT either by exercise of the trustee’s discretion or on default of that exercise without offending the certainty of objects requirement.
So clearly a FDT can still be a “family trust” in substance even though charities beyond the family can also benefit from the largesse of an FDT.
From that perspective it can be seen that a beneficiary by donation mechanism in the trust deed of a FDT, particularly if it is sparingly used by a trustee of a FDT to benefit non-family beneficiaries, is unlikely to make a FDT any less a family trust.
The point of a donation qualification mechanism in a FDT is to ensure the trust is/remains valid even if a person becomes a beneficiary of the trust using the mechanism who is not within the family or other class of who is a beneficiary in the trust deed. Whether a trust is a family trust or not is not pertinent to that.
Schedule 2F (trust tax losses etc.) family trusts
A “family trust” (2FFT) for the purposes of the (trust loss measures in) Schedule 2F of the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 is a different matter. Sections 272-90 and 272-95 of Schedule 2F include certain specified relations of a test individual as members of a family group. Although distributions to individuals outside of the family group are liable to family trust distributions tax (FTDT) under Division 271 of Schedule 2F at the highest marginal income tax rate imposed on the trustee, trust distributions by a 2FFT to those individuals are not precluded by Schedule 2F either by law or in practice.
It can be seen that, unlike with state stamp duty and land tax surcharge measures which impacted who can be a DB of a FDT, the family trust and FTDT regimes in Schedule 2F do not impact on who can be a beneficiary of a FDT. Where a FDT elects to become a 2FFT, no FTDT arises until the 2FFT makes a distribution to an outsider outside of the family group. It matters not under Schedule 2F who qualifies as a DB of a 2FFT but does not receive a distribution.
If Schedule 2F had instead tax penalised 2FFTs with DBs outside of the family group whether or not distributions were made to them we would have seen the range of beneficiaries of FDTs reduce back to family groups and beneficiary by donation mechanisms superseded.
Another serious fetter on a trustee of a FDT exercising their discretion to distribute trust income to a DB who qualifies as a DB by using a beneficiary by donation mechanism is the high risk and potential that the Commissioner of Taxation may impose section 100A of the ITAA 1936 to tax the distribution on the trustee also at the highest marginal income tax rate.
A discretionary distribution by a trustee of a FDT to a person who is not a member of the family designated for benefit under the FDT begs the question why the distribution is being made outside of the family to this person. It is unusual that a trustee of FDT would seek to benefit someone outside of that family without the family receiving a quid pro quo in some form.
A quid pro quo grounds a reimbursement agreement which triggers section 100A.
A true gift to the non-family DB and the absence of a quid pro quo are facts the trustee and the family would need to prove, to resist a section 100A reimbursement agreement assessment on the trustee of the FDT. Situations where distributions to DBs who are not members of the family are more likely to be accepted by the Commissioner as not involving a reimbursement agreement include where:
- the DB is a relation of a family member who is narrowly outside the class of family included as beneficiaries under the FDT;
- the designated family may have few if any surviving family members; or
- the DB is a person in need;
or a mix of those circumstances and then a beneficiary by donation mechanism in a trust deed of a FDT that is not a 2FFT may be usable without draconian tax consequences.
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