What is a family trust?

HotbotBy HotBotUpdated: July 10, 2024

Understanding a Family Trust

A family trust, also known as a "revocable trust" or "living trust," is a legal entity created to manage and protect family assets. This financial tool is often utilized to ensure that assets are distributed according to the family’s wishes, both during their lifetime and after death.

Key Components of a Family Trust

A family trust comprises several key components:

Settlors or Grantors

The settlor, also known as the grantor or trustor, is the person or persons who create the trust. They transfer ownership of their assets into the trust.


Trustees are the individuals or entities responsible for managing the trust's assets. In many cases, the settlor initially serves as the trustee, retaining control over the assets during their lifetime. Successor trustees are named to take over management upon the settlor’s death or incapacitation.


Beneficiaries are the individuals or entities entitled to benefit from the trust’s assets. This typically includes immediate family members, but can also encompass extended family, friends, or charitable organizations.

Trust Deed

The trust deed is the legal document that establishes the trust and outlines its terms and conditions. It specifies the roles of the trustee, the rights of the beneficiaries, and the rules for distributing assets.

Types of Family Trusts

Family trusts can be classified into several types based on their structure and purpose.

Revocable Trusts

A revocable trust allows the settlor to retain control over the trust and make changes or revoke it entirely during their lifetime. This flexibility makes it a popular choice for estate planning.

Irrevocable Trusts

An irrevocable trust, once established, cannot be altered or terminated without the consent of the beneficiaries. This type of trust can provide greater asset protection and tax benefits but offers less flexibility.

Discretionary Trusts

In a discretionary trust, the trustee has the power to decide how and when to distribute income or capital among the beneficiaries. This can be beneficial for managing family wealth and addressing individual needs.

Fixed Trusts

A fixed trust, also known as a "non-discretionary trust," specifies exactly how the trust's income and capital should be distributed among the beneficiaries. The trustee has no discretion in this regard.

Benefits of Setting Up a Family Trust

Creating a family trust offers numerous advantages:

Asset Protection

A family trust can shield assets from creditors, lawsuits, and financial risks. This is particularly important for individuals in professions with high liability exposure, such as doctors or business owners.

Estate Planning and Probate Avoidance

By placing assets in a trust, families can avoid the lengthy and costly probate process. This ensures a smoother and faster transfer of assets to beneficiaries.

Tax Benefits

Depending on the jurisdiction, family trusts can offer significant tax advantages. They can be structured to minimize estate taxes, capital gains taxes, and income taxes.


Unlike a will, which becomes a public document upon death, a trust remains private. This ensures that the details of the family’s financial affairs are kept confidential.

Flexibility and Control

A family trust allows the settlor to retain control over their assets while providing clear instructions for their management and distribution. This can be particularly useful for managing complex family dynamics and ensuring equitable treatment of beneficiaries.

Steps to Establish a Family Trust

Creating a family trust involves several steps:

Identify Goals and Objectives

The first step is to clearly define the goals and objectives of the trust. This includes determining who will be the beneficiaries, what assets will be included, and how they will be managed and distributed.

Select Trustees

Choosing the right trustees is crucial for the success of the trust. This can include family members, trusted friends, or professional trustees such as lawyers or financial institutions.

Draft the Trust Deed

The trust deed should be drafted with the assistance of legal professionals to ensure it complies with relevant laws and accurately reflects the settlor’s wishes.

Transfer Assets

The settlor must transfer ownership of the designated assets into the trust. This can include real estate, investments, bank accounts, and personal property.

Register the Trust

In some jurisdictions, the trust must be registered with the appropriate government authority. This may involve filing specific forms and paying registration fees.

Ongoing Management

Once the trust is established, the trustee must manage the assets according to the terms of the trust deed. This includes making distributions to beneficiaries, filing tax returns, and maintaining accurate records.

Challenges and Considerations

While family trusts offer many benefits, they also come with challenges:

Complexity and Costs

Setting up and maintaining a family trust can be complex and costly. Legal and administrative fees can add up, especially for larger estates.

Tax Implications

While trusts can offer tax benefits, they can also have tax implications that need to be carefully managed. Consulting with tax professionals is essential.

Family Dynamics

Family trusts can sometimes exacerbate family tensions, especially if there are perceived inequities in the distribution of assets. Clear communication and fair treatment of beneficiaries are crucial.

Case Studies and Examples

To illustrate the practical application of family trusts, consider the following case studies:

The Smith Family Trust

John and Mary Smith created a revocable trust to manage their estate, which included a family business, real estate, and investment accounts. They named their two children as beneficiaries and appointed a trusted family friend as the successor trustee. Upon their passing, the trust ensured a smooth transition of assets, avoided probate, and provided clear instructions for the management of the family business.

The Johnson Discretionary Trust

The Johnson family established a discretionary trust to support their three children, each with different financial needs and circumstances. The trustee was given the discretion to allocate funds for education, healthcare, and other needs. This approach provided flexibility and addressed the unique requirements of each beneficiary.

The intricacies of family trusts reveal their multifaceted nature, serving as a testament to their unique ability to cater to various financial and familial needs. The choice to establish a family trust, tailored to specific circumstances, reflects a strategic approach to asset management and legacy planning.

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