Yesterday I blogged about the limited circumstances in which the court will interfere with a trustee’s discretionary decisions while administering a trust. Simply put, as confirmed by the Ontario Court of Appeal in Fox v. Fox Estate in citing to the old English decision of Gisborne v. Gisborne, although generally speaking the court will not interfere with a trustee’s decisions while administering a trust, they may do so under limited circumstances and intervene if the trustee’s decision was made with what is known as “mala fides” which roughly translates as “bad faith”.
While Gisborne v. Gisborne makes it clear that the court will not interfere with a trustee’s discretion unless there is “mala fides“, it does not provide much guidance regarding what would constitute “mala fides” or “bad faith” on the part of the trustee. In Fox v. Fox Estate, in recognizing that there is little guidance with respect to what constitutes “bad faith”, the Court of Appeal cites to the article “Judicial Control of Trustees’ Discretions” by Professor Maurice Cullity (as he then was) in trying to provide some guidance for what will constitute “bad faith”. In summarizing his position with respect to what will constitute “mala fides” on the part of a trustee in exercising their discretionary authority, Prof. Cullity provides the following summary:
“Yet, it seems clear that the mala fides which will justify the intervention of the court must extend a considerable distance beyond the requirement of personal honesty. If the doctrine of fraud on a power permits the courts to intervene to strike down attempts to exercise a power which is vested in a person who is not a trustee, the jurisdiction over trustees must be at least as extensive. In very broad terms, that doctrine invalidates any attempt to exercise a power which is intended to achieve a purpose other than that for which the power was conferred. It is unquestionable that fraud in this sense is within the concept of mala fides.” [emphasis added]
Prof. Cullity’s definition of “mala fides“, whereby he advises that the court’s utilization of such a doctrine is intended to invalidate “any attempt to exercise a power which is intended to achieve a purpose other than that for which the power was conferred“, could offer some guidance on the kind of circumstances in which the court will interfere with a trustee’s discretion. It would appear that the fundamental question to be considered by the court in determining whether a decision was made in “bad faith” is in effect whether the decision is in keeping with the original intention of the trust. If the answer is “yes”, the court will not interfere with the discretionary decision by the trustee. If the answer is “no”, the circumstances may be such that the court will interfere with the decision on the grounds that it was made in “bad faith”.
Thank you for reading.
The use of a “discretionary trust” that grants the trustee with the absolute discretion to determine when and if a distribution is made to a beneficiary, and in what amount, is a fairly common estate planning tool. If you are a beneficiary of a trust which provides the trustee with such broad discretion you may question whether there is anything that you can do prior to the final distribution to question the discretionary decisions that have been made by a trustee, and whether there are circumstances in which the court will intervene to overturn a trustee’s discretionary decision. The short answer is that while the court is generally reluctant to interfere with a trustee’s discretionary decisions, there are certain limited circumstances in which they will intervene and overturn a trustee’s decision.
The leading decision in Ontario concerning when the court will interfere with a trustee’s discretion is Fox v. Fox Estate. In considering when the court may interfere with a trustee’s discretion, the Court of Appeal provides the following commentary:
“The entire question of the degree of control which the courts can and should exercise over a trustee who holds an absolute discretion is filled with difficulty. The leading case, or at least the case to which reference is almost always made, is Gisborne v. Gisborne (1877), 2 App. Cas. 300 (H.L.). It stands for the proposition that so long as there is no ‘mala fides’ on the part of a trustee the exercise of an absolute discretion is to be without any check or control by the courts.” [emphasis added]
Fox v. Fox Estate cites to the English authority of Gisborne v. Gisborne for the proposition that, so long as there is no “mala fides” on the part of the trustees in exercising their discretion, the court will not interfere with a trustee’s discretion. In Gisborne v. Gisborne, Lord Cairns provides the following commentary with respect to when the court may interfere with any discretionary decision undertaken by a trustee:
“My Lords, larger words than those, it appears to me, it would be impossible to introduce into a will. The trustees are not merely to have discretion, but they are to have “uncontrollable”, that is, uncontrolled, “authority”. Their discretion and authority, always supposing that there is not mala fides with regard to its exercise, is to be without any check or control from any superior tribunal.” [emphasis added]
Simply put, the court will generally not interfere with a trustee’s discretionary decisions unless they were exercised with “mala fides“. “Mala fides” roughly translates as “bad faith”, such that the principle from Gisborne v. Gisborne can be summarized as providing that so long as there is no “bad faith” on the part of the trustee in making a discretionary decision the court will not interfere with such a decision.
Thank you for reading.