Can a Trustee Consider a Beneficiary’s Assets in Exercising Discretion?
It is not uncommon for a trust or a Will to provide a trustee with broad and unfettered discretion in the administration of the trust or estate. We have previously blogged about the powers and duties of estate trustees, stating that it can be difficult to determine how such discretion should be exercised. Often, a trustee is given broad discretion to encroach on the capital of a trust or estate, for the benefit of a beneficiary. The issue then is: what factors can a trustee consider in determining whether to exercise their discretion to make a capital encroachment?
Broadly speaking, if a trustee is given unfettered discretion by a settlor or testator, the court will only intervene in the trustee’s decision-making if the trustee has exercised his or her discretion on the basis of mala fides, or bad faith. While there are a number of specific factors that a trustee may properly consider, for the purpose of this blog I will focus on one, namely the extent to which a trustee can consider a beneficiary’s income and/or assets.
Where a trustee is being asked to encroach on capital for the benefit of an income beneficiary, the trustee must consider the application of the even hand rule (briefly discussed in this blog). In doing so, a trustee may be tempted to consider the income beneficiary’s financial circumstances, as this information could illuminate how the trustee’s decision may affect the income beneficiary as compared to the capital beneficiary. However, the case law seems to indicate that this would not be a proper consideration.
In Re: Luke,  O.W.N. 25, the court considered whether the income beneficiary, who was also the trustee, should first look to her own financial resources before exercising her power to encroach on capital for her own benefit. The court determined that she did not have to first exhaust her own resources, as the testator had not expressed an intention in his Will that she do so. Similarly, in Hinton v. Canada Permanent Trust Company, (1979), 5 E.T.R. 117 (H.C.), a corporate trustee requested information from an income beneficiary as to the beneficiary’s own financial resources in the context of the trustee exercising its discretion to encroach on capital. Again, the court found that the testator had not indicated an intention in his Will that the income beneficiary’s income should be a factor in determining whether to encroach on capital, and the income beneficiary’s resources were, accordingly, not relevant.
The foregoing principle has been followed in a number of other decisions over the years, thus appearing to support the impropriety of considering a beneficiary’s personal financial resources as a factor in making capital encroachments, absent an intention by the testator in this regard.
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