The Henson Trust has become fairly common estate planning tool for those looking to provide a bequest to someone who may be receiving government benefits such as ODSP without such an individual losing their qualification to the government benefits. At the core of the Henson Trust is the concept that the trust is wholly discretionary, with the assets that are placed in the trust not “vesting” in the beneficiary who is receiving the government benefits until the trustee has decided to make a distribution in their favour. This allows the trustee to ensure that the beneficiary does not receive a greater amount from the trust in a given time period than allowed under the government benefits, such that the beneficiary can continue to receive their government benefits as well as receive funds from the trust.

But what happens to any funds that may be left in the trust upon the death of the beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was primarily established? Typically, the terms of the trust will provide for a “gift-over” of any residue to an alternate beneficiary. If the trust fails to provide for such a “gift-over” however, it could have significant repercussions to the primary beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was established, and could result in the Henson Trust being declared void.

For a trust to exist it must have what are known as the “three certainties”. They are:

  1. Certainty of Intention – It must be clear that the settlor intended to create a trust;
  2. Certainty of Subject Matter – It must be clear what property is to form part of the trust; and
  3. Certainty of Objects – It must be clear who the potential beneficiaries of the trust are.

A trust that does not have the “three certainties” is an oxymoron, insofar as there can be no trust that offends the three certainties as the trust failed to be established. In the circumstance contemplated above, the lack of “gift-over” upon the primary beneficiary’s death would arguably equate to there being a lack of “certainty of objects”, insofar as it is not clear who all of the potential beneficiaries of the trust are. If it is found that the trust does offend the “certainty of objects” it would fail. Should the trust fail, the primary beneficiary for whom the Henson Trust was established would no longer have the funds which would have formed the Henson Trust available to top up the funds which they receive from their government benefits, with such funds likely now forming part of the residue or being distributed on a partial intestacy.

Although the historical application of the “three certainties” would result in the Henson Trust contemplated above having been declared void from the beginning, insofar as no trust that offends the three certainties can be found to exist, it should be noted that the court in Stoor v. Stoor Estate, 2014 ONSC 5684, went to great lengths to avoid such an outcome. In Stoor Estate, notwithstanding that the court found that the trust in question failed as a result of it offending the three certainties for a lack of “certainty of objects”, the court delayed the failure of the trust until after the primary beneficiary’s death believing that it was in keeping with the testator’s intentions.

There has been significant debate about whether the Stoor Estate decision was correctly decided, and what impact, if any, it should have upon the historical application of the “three certainties”. What is not in debate however is that it is important that when drafting a Henson Trust, or any trust for that matter, to ensure that you provide for a gift-over of the residue upon the primary beneficiary’s death. If you fail to provide for such a gift-over you run the risk that the trust will be declared void for offending the three certainties, thereby depriving the individual for whom you were establishing the Henson Trust the opportunity to receive such funds in addition to their government benefits.

Thank you for reading.

Stuart Clark