When does a Beneficiary have a Specific Interest in Trust Assets?
A beneficiary of a trust can have either a vested or a contingent interest in the trust’s assets. For example, if a trustee holds an asset in trust for another person, with no further conditions attached, the beneficiary’s interest in that asset will be vested. However, if the trustee holds the same asset in trust for a beneficiary, subject to the condition that the beneficiary attain the age of 30, that beneficiary’s interest depends on them reaching the age of 30, and is therefore contingent. Whether a beneficiary’s interest is vested or contingent can have different consequences depending on the particular circumstances.
In Spencer v Riesberry, 2011 ONSC 3222 (affirmed in Spencer v Riesberry, 2012 ONCA 418), the Ontario Superior Court of Justice considered the nature of a beneficiary’s interest in a trust. Specifically, in the context of matrimonial litigation, the court considered whether a spouse’s beneficial interest in real property held by a trust could be considered as “property in which a person has an interest” for the purpose of s. 18(1) of the Family Law Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. F.3, such that the property in question could be considered the matrimonial home. If a property is considered to be a matrimonial home, pursuant to s. 4 of the Family Law Act, it cannot be deducted or excluded from the calculation of net family property and can contribute to increasing the owner spouse’s net family property.
In this case, a married couple, Sandra and Derek, had been residing, with their children, in their family home on Riverside Drive. In 1993, Sandra’s mother, Linda, had purchased the Riverside Drive property and settled it in a trust (the “Trust”). Sandra and Derek resided in the residence prior to their marriage in 1994, as well as during the marriage. The couple separated in 2010.
The beneficiaries of the Trust were Sandra, Linda, and Linda’s three other children. Three other properties were added, by gift, to the Trust over subsequent years, and each of these other properties were occupied by one of the other three children and their families.
The terms of the Trust provided that the trustee was to hold the trust property, subject to a life interest in favour of Linda. Upon Linda’s death, the trustee was to divide the trust property into equal parts so that there is one part for each beneficiary living at the date of Linda’s death.
The court considered the nature of Sandra’s interest in the Riverside Drive property in the context of her net family property and whether it could be characterized as a matrimonial home. Due to the terms of the Trust, the court held that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property. Although she was a beneficiary of the Trust, which owned the Riverside Drive property, it does not follow that Sandra was specifically entitled to that property in particular. Sandra’s interest in the Trust was characterized as a contingent beneficial interest, as her ultimate entitlement under the Trust depended on various factors. For instance, as the division of Trust property amongst beneficiaries would happen only upon Linda’s death, the assets to be distributed would consist of whatever is held by the Trust at that time. Additionally, the beneficiaries must be alive at the time of Linda’s death in order to receive their share.
On this basis, the Court concluded that Sandra did not have a specific interest in the Riverside Drive property such that it could be considered a matrimonial home. As Sandra was a contingent beneficiary of the Trust, the Court did find that she held an interest in the Trust’s assets generally, which was required to be valued and included as part of the equalization calculations. However, as the interest is not subject to the special treatment given to the matrimonial home, it can be deducted or excluded from net family property, as applicable. Overall, as Sandra’s interest in the Trust’s assets was contingent and not vested, it had a significant effect on the matrimonial proceedings with her spouse.
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