Henson Trust – Advantages and Disadvantages
The “Henson trust” is a type of trust often used in estate planning to deal with situations where there is a disabled beneficiary who is entitled to receive support payments from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP). The name of the Henson trust originates from an Ontario case, The Minister of Community and Social Services v Henson,  OJ No 1121, aff’d  OJ No 2093 (Ont CA), where the Court held that a discretionary trust established for a disabled beneficiary would not result in a loss of government benefits, as the beneficiary had no vested right to receive income or capital from the trust.
Under the Ontario Disability Support Program Act, if a recipient of ODSP has assets, or receives income over a prescribed limit, they will cease being eligible to receive support payments. An individual cannot hold more than $5,000.00 in assets (with some exceptions, including their principal residence and a vehicle) and continue to receive ODSP. However, ODSP often does not provide sufficient income, and the restrictions on income and assets cause recipients to subsist on very little, or risk losing their ODSP. One way to address this issue is through the establishment of the Henson trust.
The essential elements of a Henson trust are: (i) that the trustee must have absolute discretion, (ii) that the assets of the trust do not vest in the beneficiary, and (iii) that there is a gift-over following the death of the beneficiary. While usually a beneficial interest in a trust is taken into account in determining an individual’s assets, the Henson trust is an exception, due to the fact that the beneficiary in this type of trust has no vested interest in the assets, nor any right to demand that the trustee pay them from the trust. As such, the beneficiary is not required to treat the trust assets as his or her own and consequently, the Henson trust provides a method of providing additional income to a disabled beneficiary without causing them to become ineligible for ODSP.
The Henson trust, however, is not a perfect solution. First, it relies on the absolute discretion of the trustee in order to meet the requirements of the trust. Because Henson trusts are often created in a will by parents of a disabled beneficiary to ensure that their child will be properly looked after, the parents are forced to repose complete trust in their chosen trustee. That trustee consequently holds a great deal of responsibility. Thus, it is vital to choose a trustee that is unquestionably trustworthy, who will prioritize the best interests of the child and will not take advantage of their position.
Second, the Henson trust cannot avoid the rules with respect to income limits for recipients. Therefore, the payments to the beneficiary from the trust still cannot exceed the income limits for ODSP. Although the trust helps to provide a guaranteed, steady income to a disabled beneficiary, they will likely still be living on quite a low income.
If a settlor of a trust has sufficient assets to provide for a disabled beneficiary, they may want to consider a regular trust arrangement, as opposed to a Henson trust. The downside of course, is that, depending on the amount of payments to the beneficiary, they may lose their eligibility for ODSP. However, it may be worth the trade-off to ensure that your loved one can live comfortably. Before making a Henson trust arrangement, talk to a trusted advisor who can help determine the best fit for you.
Thanks for reading.