Henson Trusts and Contract: The “Reasonable Person” Approach
Henson trusts are a valuable estate planning technique to protect the interests of individuals receiving asset-dependant social assistance, such as ODSP. However, as discussed in the recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in S.A. v Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation, a Henson trust may be invaluable in preserving other forms of need-based assistance.
The appellant, S.A., was a disabled individual receiving monthly distributions under British Columbia’s Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act. S.A.’s father passed away in 2012 and S.A. was one-third residuary beneficiary of his Estate. In order to preserve her entitlement to assistance, her share was settled in a Henson trust in which S.A. was the primary beneficiary and a co-trustee.
In 2015, S.A. submitted an application (the “Application”) to the Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (“MVHC”) in order to be eligible for subsidized rent. The Application required S.A. to disclose whether she held assets totaling in excess of $25,000. S.A. indicated that she did not. MVHC was made aware of the existence of the Trust as a result of prior correspondence with S.A. and, as a result of her failure to disclose her contingent interest, S.A.’s application for subsidized rent was denied.
S.A. commenced proceedings against MVHC seeking, among other relief, a declaration that her contingent interest in the Trust was not an asset for the purposes of the Application. Both the trial judge and the British Columbia Court of Appeal dismissed S.A.’s petition. S.A. appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.
This case was the first instance in which the Supreme Court was tasked with considering the nature of a Henson trust. As such, the Court restated the central features of a Henson trust, namely:
- The beneficiary in question must not have a fixed entitlement;
- The trustees retain absolute discretion as to whether any distributions are made to the beneficiary, including the discretion to make no distribution; and
- The beneficiary must not retain the entirety of the beneficial interest in the trust such that he or she could collapse it pursuant to the Rule in Saunders v Vautier.
S.A. was ultimately successful at the Supreme Court level, but on the basis of contractual interpretation rather than the nature of her interest in the Trust itself. The central issue was whether S.A.’s beneficial interest in the Trust was an asset for the purpose of the Application.
The Court considered the Application and applied basic principles of contract law, namely, that the Application was to be read as a whole with the words to be given their ordinary grammatical meaning. The term “asset” was not specifically defined in the Application to include a contingent interest in a trust.
MVHC attempted to point to an Asset Ceiling Policy that it relied on to inform its definition of an “asset” for the purposes of the Application. This Policy was a separate document setting out a non-exhaustive list of assets that ought to be disclosed by applicants. However, the Court noted that the Policy was not referenced in the Application proper. The Court held that a “reasonable person” interpreting the Application would not consider a contingent interest in a trust to be an asset for the purposes of that Application.
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