The composition of assets held by a trust can be complex. In situations wherein a significant amount of wealth is held in a trust, the trust can often be composed of various corporate entities (whether numbered companies or otherwise), which in turn can often hold interests in other corporations. The administration of such corporate entities can have wide ranging implications, with the trusts perhaps only owning a portion of any shares in the overall structure. But what right, if any, does a beneficiary of the trust have to view the backing corporate documentation for such corporations? Does a beneficiary of a trust have an automatic right to view all backing corporate documentation, or do the trustees have the authority to refuse the request in certain circumstances?

Although there is little jurisprudence in Canada on the subject, the English case of Butt v. Kelson, [1952] Ch. 197, has been cited as a leading authority. In Butt v. Kelson, Justice Romer provides the following commentary in confirming that beneficiaries of a trust have certain rights to compel the release of backing corporate documentation:

Release of backing corporate documentation
“In Butt v. Kelson, Justice Romer provides the following commentary in confirming that beneficiaries of a trust have certain rights to compel the release of backing corporate documentation”

“What I think is the true way of looking at the matter is that which was presented to this court by Sir Lynn Ungoed-Thomas, that is that the beneficiaries are entitled to be treated as though they were the registered shareholders in respect of trust shares, with the advantages and disadvantages (for example, restrictions imposed by the articles) which are involved in that position, and that they can compel the trustee directors if necessary to use their votes as the beneficiaries, or as the court, if the beneficiaries themselves are not in agreement, think proper, even to the extent of altering the articles of association if the trust shares carry votes sufficient for that purpose… I would propose, accordingly, that the declaration which has been made be discharged, but that there should be inserted into the order liberty to [the beneficiary] to apply in these proceedings in relation to any document which he may hereafter desire to see and of which [the trustees] decline to give him inspection. [emphasis added]

Justice Romer’s commentary suggests that at minimum a beneficiary of a trust is entitled to the same disclosure rights regarding any corporation owned by the trust as if the beneficiary were the shareholder of the shares which the trust owns. Whether such disclosure rights go beyond that of a shareholder, and whether the beneficiary can compel the release of any documentation available only to the directors, will need to be determined on a case by case basis, with Justice Romer suggesting that it may even be possible in circumstances where the trust is the majority shareholder for the beneficiaries to compel the trustees (as shareholders) to alter the articles of incorporation to provide for the release of certain documentation which otherwise may not have been available to them. Whether the beneficiaries would be entitled to receive such documentation would need to be determined by the court on a case by case basis.

Thank you for reading.

Stuart Clark