What is a trust?

Basic working definition of a trust

A trust is a relationship which arises where one party (the trustee) is ordered in equity to hold property for the benefit of another party (the beneficiary) or for some purpose permitted by law.   

Note however:
  • There may be more than one trustee and more than one beneficiary;
  • The same party may be both a trustee and a beneficiary.

The obligatory nature of a trust

Some definitions refer to a trust as an obligation; others use the word “compelled” to convey the same idea. This reflects the fact that a trust gives rise to duties which are imperative in the sense that the trustees must carry them out or be answerable for breach of trust. A person who sets out to create a trust must declare his intention using imperative words

The trust property 

Trusts do not exist in a vacuum but by reference to some form of real or personal property which becomes the subject-matter of the trust. As a rule, it is only where the trust property is vested in the trustee that the trust becomes completely constituted and therefore enforceable.

 Lord Browne-Wilkinson who declares in Westdeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale v Islington L.B.C [1996] A.C 669, that

            “in order to establish a trust, there must be identifiable trust property”.

Anything capable of being owned may be held on trust. The subject-matter of a trust may range from tangible assets such as land and objects, to intangible assets such as company shares and investment products and intellectual property rights.

Typically the person creating the trust (the settlor or testator) will own a legal estate in the property and will take steps to vest the legal estate in the intended trustee. A trust is however capable of arising even if the settlor/testator is not the legal owner of the property but has only an equitable interest in which case it is this equitable interest that will be assigned to the trustee to hold on trust not the actual property.

Dual ownership of the trust property

    Historically, the common law regarded the trustee (T) as the owner of the trust property and even to this day recognises his legal ownership. Equity, while acknowledging this legal ownership insisted from the outset that it was purely nominal and that the benefits gained from the property where to be gained by the beneficiary. As time has passed, it became accepted that the beneficiary acquired a class of equitable ownership of the trust property.

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For more information on:

  • Trust beneficiaries and trust purposes 
  • The beneficiary principle   
  • The descriptions of purposes that are to be considered charitable are now set out in:
  • section 2(2) Charities Act 2006 and include such things as the relief of poverty, the advancement of education and the advancement of religion.