In common law legal systems, a trust is a relationship whereby property is held by one party for the benefit of another. A trust is created by a settlor, who transfers some or all of his or her property to a trustee. The trustee holds that property for the trust’s beneficiaries.
An owner placing property into trust turns over part of his or her bundle of rights to the trustee, separating the property’s legal ownership and control from its equitable ownership and benefits. This may be done for tax reasons or to control the property and its benefits if the settlor is absent, incapacitated, or dead. Trusts are frequently created in wills, defining how money and property will be handled for children or other beneficiaries. The trustee is given legal title to the trust property, but is obligated to act for the good of the beneficiaries. The trustee may be compensated and have expenses reimbursed, but otherwise must turn over all profits from the trust properties. The trustee may be either an individual, a company, or a public body. There may be a single trustee or multiple co-trustees.
The trust is governed by the terms under which it was created. In most jurisdictions, this requires a contractual trust agreement or deed. Living trusts, as opposed to testamentary (will) trusts, avoid probate. Avoiding probate may save costs and maintain privacy and living trusts have become very popular. Both living trusts and wills can also be used to plan for unforeseen circumstances such as incapacity or disability, by giving discretionary powers to the trustee or executor of the will.
A trust may have multiple trustees, and these trustees are the legal owners of the trust’s property, but have a fiduciary duty to beneficiaries and various duties, such as a duty of care and a duty to inform. If trustees do not adhere to these duties, they may be removed through a legal action. The trustee may be either a person or a legal entity such as a company, but typically the trust itself is not an entity and any lawsuit must be against the trustees. A trustee has many rights and responsibilities which vary based on the jurisdiction and trust instrument. If a trust lacks a trustee, a court may appoint a trustee.
The trustees administer the affairs attendant to the trust. The trust’s affairs may include prudently investing the assets of the trust, accounting for and reporting periodically to the beneficiaries, filing required tax returns, and other duties.
The beneficiaries are beneficial (or equitable) owners of the trust property. Either immediately or eventually, the beneficiaries will receive income from the trust property, or they will receive the property itself. The extent of a beneficiary’s interest depends on the wording of the trust document. One beneficiary may be entitled to income (for example, interest from a bank account), whereas another may be entitled to the entirety of the trust property when he attains the age of twenty-five years. The settlor has much discretion when creating the trust, subject to some limitations imposed by law.
A will or testament is a legal declaration by which a person, the testator, names one or more persons to manage his or her estate and provides for the distribution of his or her property at death. Though it has at times been thought that a “will” was historically limited to real property while “testament” applies only to dispositions of personal property (thus giving rise to the popular title of the document as “Last Will and Testament”), the historical records show that the terms have been used interchangeably. Thus, the word “will” validly applies to both personal and real property. A will may also create a testamentary trust that is effective only after the death of the testator.