Discretionary trusts are a legal instrument that offer control and flexibility in both holding and distributing property or other assets to beneficiaries of the trust.
There are also significant tax advantages for property and assets held in such a trust, which is one reason they are a popular structure for small businesses, particularly family businesses.
A discretionary trust – sometimes also referred to us a ‘family trust’ –invests in the trustee the power to determine the nominated beneficiaries of the trust and the discretion to distribute property and income to them in whichever amounts they choose. This means beneficiaries have no interest in the trust property unless the trustee exercises its discretion. The trustee is not held to predetermined arrangements or agreements about distributions, as in a fixed or unit trust.
Beneficiaries will usually be close family members, other family companies or charities. Significantly not all beneficiaries need to be included at the establishment of the trust; they can be added later under the trust instrument.
Below we’ll briefly outline the key advantages and disadvantages of establishing a discretionary trust. If you are thinking this structure may suit your circumstances, you should seek the guidance of a legal practitioner with expertise in the area of trusts to ensure you are fully aware of both the benefits but also the drawbacks.
The advantages of a discretionary trust
Asset protection: Property and assets held within a discretionary trust are held beneficially for the beneficiaries by the trustee. This structure means trust assets cannot be taken by creditors in bankruptcy proceedings, unless the claim relates to a debt of the trust.
Some discretionary trusts use a corporate structure in which the directors of the company act as the trustees. This form is preferred by some people because companies are perpetual and on the death of a director, a new director can be appointed without affecting the company. Even in this situation, property held by a company as trustee is not accessible by creditors in a liquidation of the company, unless the debt is a debt of the trust.
Estate planning: Generally speaking, the ownership of assets held in a trust cannot be passed on through a person’s will. But by making a testamentary discretionary trust under a will, which only takes effect on death, the trustee can exercise discretion in the payment of income and capital of the trust to the beneficiaries.
This is a strength of a discretionary trust to protect against the situation where a beneficiary is or becomes bankrupt. Where a person inherits assets in their own name, these pass to the trustee in bankruptcy. In a testamentary discretionary trust, the beneficiary’s inheritance is protected, provided they have not transferred wealth to the trust with the intention of defeating creditors.
Likewise that inheritance is in general protected in the event the beneficiary experiences a marriage or de facto relationship break-up and the ex-partner seeks access to the assets or income via a Family Court order, though it should be noted the Court may still consider any assets owned by the discretionary trust as a form of financial resource which could become a factor in the split of assets.
Tax effectiveness: Discretionary trusts can be a tax effective structure as a holding entity for investing in real estate, other fixed assets, shares or units in trusts. Income derived from these assets is held in the trust, which distributes it at its discretion in any particular year.
Each beneficiary pays income tax on his or her allocated share of income, according to his or her normal tax rate. In a simple discretionary trust held by a husband and wife, for example, if she earns much more than he does in a year and is taxed at the top marginal tax rate, it makes sense to distribute a greater share of trust income to the husband, who will be taxed at a lower marginal rate.
There is a significant capital gains tax advantage, too. If the investment is held in the trust for more than 12 months, any gain on the value of the investment is eligible for a 50% capital gains tax discount when it is sold, but only if the capital gain is distributed to an individual beneficiary. Expert tax guidance from a tax lawyer or accountant would be required.
Flexibility: Beneficiaries can accumulate assets within the trust structure. Unlike superannuation funds, there are no contribution limits or restrictions on where to invest, unless specified by the trust deed.
Trusts can also represent a simpler reporting structure when it comes to tax liabilities, debt deductions and dividends on investments.
And the disadvantages…
Beneficiaries lack legal or equitable interest in property: Since beneficiaries do not own the assets of the trust, they do not hold a legal or equitable interest in trust property, meaning the trustee or trustees can employ their discretion to change allocations from the trust on a whim.
There may also be a restriction on who can be distributed to if you need to make a family trust election (FTE). An FTE entitles the trust to certain tax concessions when claiming losses from prior years or imputation credits on franked dividends received. Making an FTE, however, means family trust distribution tax is imposed when distributions are made outside the family group.
Only profits are distributed: Losses are trapped in the trust and cannot be distributed to a beneficiary in order to reduce their taxable income.
Complexity and compliance: Depending on whether your discretionary trust is a close family trust or uses a corporate structure, and the number of beneficiaries, the trust instrument can be complicated. There can also be onerous compliance obligations, particularly when it comes to taxation, adding to the administrative costs of maintaining a trust.
Attracting investment: Investors can be more difficult to attract to a business where a trust structure is employed. Banks who are unfamiliar with the terms of the trust deed may express hesitation about lending for investment.
Ask us for guidance
Whether a discretionary trust is suitable for your situation based on the factors we’ve outlined above is a decision you should consider after expert legal advice.
At Felicio Law Firm, we have years of experience advising people on both the benefits and potential drawbacks of establishing a discretionary trust for protection of family and/or business assets.