Are Registered Education Savings Plans Different from Trusts?
On Tuesday, I blogged about Registered Education Savings Plans (“RESPs”), the statute governing their administration, and the difference between Family Plans and Individual Plans.
When people usually hear about RESPs though, they often think that it is some kind of trust. However, that is most likely not the case.
What Are Trusts?
The general structure of a trust under Canadian law is that a settlor gives property to a trustee for the benefit of some third party. In turn, the trustee holds legal title to the property but is bound by fiduciary duties to administer such trust, on behalf of the beneficiary.
To create a trust, under Canadian law, there must be:
1) A certainty of intention;
2) A certainty of subject matter; and
3) A certainty of object.
How are RESPs Different?
In the case of an RESP, as discussed previously, the subscriber keeps title to the property until the beneficiary uses it for his/her post-secondary education. A promoter, which is the financial institution that is administering the RESP, similarly does not take title to the property in the RESP. As such, the property belongs to the subscriber until such time that the beneficiary attends a post-secondary institution, or a successor subscriber is appointed.
How Have the Courts Treated RESPs?
Multiple courts have held that the RESP does not meet the criteria of “certainty of intention”, and as such, it cannot be considered a trust.
The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench held that a person who filed for bankruptcy was not holding the RESP for the exclusive benefit of her children but, rather, that she could have cancelled the plan at any time (see Payne, Re (2001), ABQB 894, 109 ACWS (3d) 687). This Court further held that since there was no intention to create a fiduciary relationship in the case of an RESP, it did not meet the certainty of intention. The same result was reached by the New Brunswick Court of Queen’s Bench and the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench (see Vinneau, Re (2007), NBQB 332, 160 ACWS (3d) 939 and MacKinnon v Deloitte & Touche Inc. (2007), SKQB 39, 155 ACWS (3d) 27).
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice has, however, come to a different conclusion. The Court held that the subjective intent at the time of the creation of the RESP could create a trust (see McConnell v McConnell (2015, ONSC 2243, 252 ACWS (3d) 300). This case dealt with a family law dispute and the question arose whether an RESP belonged to the beneficiary child or the subscriber parent. The Court did not consider certain characteristics of an RESP that are not congruent with the finding that it is a trust, such as the fact that a subscriber may collapse the RESP at any time, as well as use it as security for a loan.
As such, it is possible that McConnell v McConnell could be restricted to the facts at hand and assessed in the context of the circumstances that the Court was presented with; namely, whether or not to attribute an asset to the child or the parent, in a divorce proceeding.
Thanks for reading.
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