Role of Trusts in International Estate Planning: Importance of Setting up a Trust for International Families

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In an increasingly globalised world, cross-border families face unique challenges in estate planning. The intricate web of international laws, varying tax regimes, and diverse asset locations calls for a sophisticated approach to manage and preserve wealth across generations. This article delves into the vital role of trusts in International Estate Planning, offering a beacon of clarity for families navigating this complex terrain. From asset protection to succession planning, we explore why trusts are an indispensable tool for cross-border families, detailing their structure, types, and strategic application in the Australian context and beyond.

Table of Contents

What are Trusts?

A trust is a legal arrangement where a settlor transfers assets to a trustee, who manages these assets for the benefit of beneficiaries. Trusts are not legal entities themselves but are governed by a trust deed. This structure allows for the separation of legal ownership (by the trustee) from beneficial ownership (by the beneficiaries). Trusts are versatile and can be used for various purposes, including estate planning and asset protection.

In Australian law, trusts are a fundamental tool commonly used in structuring family estates, with their regulation falling under the jurisdiction of state and territory legislation. The concept of a trust in this context involves a trustee, who is responsible for holding and managing the trust property. This property is held for the benefit of one or more other individuals, known as beneficiaries, among whom the trustee may also be included. A key aspect of Australian trust law is the imposition of an equitable obligation on the trustee. This obligation requires the trustee to manage the trust property solely for the beneficiaries’ benefit. Any beneficiary has the legal right to enforce this obligation. It’s important to note that the trust property is registered in the name of the trustee as the legal owner, not in the name of the trust itself. This delineation underscores the trustee’s responsibility and the trust’s operational framework within Australian legal systems.

Essential Parties to Make Trusts Work

The key parties in a trust are:

Settlor: In a trust arrangement, the settlor is the individual or entity who creates the trust by transferring assets into it. The settlor decides the terms of the trust, including how the assets should be managed and distributed, and to whom. They effectively establish the trust’s purpose and structure, choosing the trustee and beneficiaries, and may sometimes retain certain rights or powers over the trust, depending on its type and terms. The settlor plays a crucial role in initiating the trust and shaping its future operations.

Trustee: The trustee in a trust arrangement is the individual or entity responsible for managing the trust’s assets according to the terms set by the settlor in the trust deed. Trustees hold legal title to the trust assets and are obligated to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. Their role includes making investment decisions, ensuring proper asset distribution, and maintaining detailed records. Trustees have a fiduciary duty, meaning they must act with integrity, fairness, and loyalty towards the trust and its beneficiaries, avoiding conflicts of interest.

Beneficiary: Beneficiaries in a trust are the individuals or entities designated to benefit from the trust’s assets and income. They may be specifically named in the trust deed or defined as a class or group (e.g., children, relatives). Beneficiaries have equitable title to the trust assets, meaning they are entitled to benefit from the assets as specified in the trust’s terms. Their rights and benefits can vary widely depending on the type of trust and its provisions, and they generally do not have control over the trust’s management, which is the trustee’s responsibility.

Types of Trusts

There are several common types of trusts, each with its unique characteristics and purposes:

  • Fixed Trusts: These are prevalent in Australia, characterised by the automatic and fixed transfer of property to designated beneficiaries. The trustee has no discretion over the distribution of income to beneficiaries.
  • Unit Trusts: Similar to fixed trusts, unit trusts involve beneficiaries holding units in the trust, akin to shareholders owning shares in a company. These are common in property investment trusts or joint ventures, where units are traded among beneficiaries.
  • Testamentary Trusts: Created upon the death of the testator (the person who set up the trust), these trusts’ terms are defined in the testator’s will. They often stipulate conditions for releasing income to beneficiaries, like reaching a certain age. Testamentary trusts are closely linked with wills and estates and can be subject to challenges or amendments by beneficiaries or family members.
  •  Discretionary Trusts (Family Trusts): Among the most common in Australia, these trusts are frequently established by families for tax planning or to manage family business income. The trustee has complete discretion in distributing the trust’s income and assets. They can also be established as special disability trusts for family members with disabilities.
  • Hybrid Trusts: Combining elements of both fixed and discretionary trusts, hybrid trusts offer trustees certain rights over asset allocation while granting regular entitlements to beneficiaries.
  • Charitable Trusts: These trusts manage assets for philanthropic purposes, often benefiting a charitable organisation or group. They also allow trustees to benefit from tax concessions.
  • Superannuation Trusts: In Australia, all superannuation is managed through trusts. The trust deed governs the terms of the superannuation trust, ensuring beneficiaries access their income upon retirement. These trusts are significant in estate planning, though the interest in the superannuation trust may not form part of the estate.
  • Bare Trusts: Involving a single trustee and a legally competent beneficiary, bare trusts allow the beneficiary to maintain complete control over the trustee. They are commonly used when beneficiaries wish to remain anonymous, employing a nominee as a proxy.

Each type of trust serves a specific purpose and is tailored to different scenarios, from family wealth management to charitable giving and retirement planning.

Why Should Cross-Border Families Use Trusts for International Estate Planning?

Utilising trusts for International Estate Planning offers a range of benefits, particularly for those with assets in multiple jurisdictions or complex family dynamics. Here’s why trusts are a valuable tool in this context:

  • Asset Protection: Trusts create a protective barrier for assets against creditors, lawsuits, and other claims. When assets are transferred to a trust, they are no longer in the individual’s name but under the trust’s ownership, often shielding them from various risks.
  • Estate and Tax Planning: Trusts are an effective strategy to minimise estate taxes, especially in high-tax jurisdictions. They also enable more efficient management of income and capital gains taxes.
  • Privacy and Confidentiality: A trust offers a higher level of privacy compared to direct asset ownership. Information about the trust’s assets and beneficiaries generally isn’t public, preserving confidentiality.
  • Succession Planning: Trusts facilitate a smoother transfer of assets to beneficiaries after the settlor’s death. This is particularly vital in international scenarios, where inheritance laws can vary significantly between countries.
  • Control and Flexibility: Trusts provide the settlor with the ability to dictate the terms of asset distribution to beneficiaries. This feature is invaluable in complex family situations or when beneficiaries might not be ready to handle significant assets.
  • Avoidance of Probate: Assets held within a trust are typically exempt from probate, the legal process of distributing a deceased person’s estate. Avoiding probate can reduce legal fees and time delays, ensuring assets are distributed as per the settlor’s wishes without the complications and public exposure associated with probate.
  • Management of International Assets: For individuals with assets in various countries, a trust offers a centralised management structure. This unified legal framework can be highly advantageous in navigating the different laws and tax regulations of multiple jurisdictions.
  • Family Governance and Legacy Planning: Trusts can be instrumental in instilling family values and ensuring that wealth is utilised in alignment with the family’s long-term objectives and vision.

In summary, trusts in international estate planning provide asset protection, tax efficiency, privacy, smooth succession, flexibility in asset distribution, avoidance of probate, effective management of international assets, and facilitation of family governance and legacy planning. These advantages make trusts a comprehensive solution for complex estate planning needs in a global context.

How to Use Trusts in Your Estate Planning Strategies?

Utilising trusts for international estate planning is a sophisticated strategy that can effectively safeguard and manage assets across international borders. Here is a systematic approach to employing trusts for international estate planning:

Clarify Your Estate Planning Objectives

Commence the process by precisely defining your objectives for international estate planning. Common objectives encompass wealth preservation, tax minimisation, provision for heirs, and maintaining financial privacy. The specific objectives you establish will significantly influence the type of trust and jurisdiction you ultimately choose.

Catalogue International Assets

Create a comprehensive inventory of all your assets, including those situated abroad. This comprehensive list should encompass real estate holdings, bank accounts, investment portfolios, business interests, and any other assets within your possession. A thorough understanding of your asset portfolio will inform the optimal trust structuring approach.

Select the Appropriate Trust Type

Depending on your unique goals and circumstances, you have a range of trust types to consider, including revocable trusts, irrevocable trusts, family trusts, and offshore trusts. Each type has distinct advantages and drawbacks, necessitating careful consultation with an estate planning attorney or financial advisor to identify the trust structure most aligned with your objectives.

Choose the Jurisdiction Wisely

The jurisdiction in which you establish the trust is a critical decision in international estate planning. Various jurisdictions offer favourable tax regimes, robust asset protection measures, and confidentiality safeguards. Common choices for offshore trusts include the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, and the British Virgin Islands. Seek guidance from a legal specialist well-versed in international trusts to guide you toward the most suitable jurisdiction.

Draft and Execute the Trust Agreement

Collaborate with a proficient attorney to meticulously draft a comprehensive trust agreement. This document should delineate the terms, conditions, and distribution instructions governing the trust. It is imperative that the trust’s framework adheres to the legal requirements of both your home country and the chosen jurisdiction.

Effectuate Asset Transfers

Execute the transfer of international assets into the trust in strict accordance with the stipulations articulated in the trust agreement. This may necessitate alterations in asset titles, changes in ownership structures, or designating the trust as the beneficiary of specific assets. Maintain rigorous documentation to evidence the lawful transfer of assets.

Ensure Adherence to Domestic and Treaty Tax Obligations

International estate planning typically involves intricate taxation considerations. Compliance with estate and gift tax laws of both your home country and the jurisdiction where the trust is established is imperative. This entails fulfilling reporting obligations, addressing estate taxes, transfer tax and addressing income tax issues.

Periodic Review and Adjustments

International legal frameworks and regulatory landscapes can undergo changes. Consequently, it is vital to periodically review your estate plan and trust structures to confirm their continued effectiveness and compliance with current laws, as well as alignment with evolving objectives.

Inform Heirs and Trustees

Ensure that your heirs and appointed trustees are well-informed regarding the existence and operational dynamics of the trust. Effective communication is pivotal in preventing potential disputes or misunderstandings in the future.

It is imperative to engage professionals with specialised knowledge in international estate planning, including attorneys, financial advisors, and tax experts. Collaborating with these experts will facilitate the alignment of your trust structures with your objectives while ensuring compliance with the relevant legal and regulatory frameworks.

Cross-border Trusts in Australia

Australia has ratified the Hague Convention on the Law Applicable to Trusts and on their Recognition and has enacted the Trusts (Hague Convention) Act 1991 (Cth), which gives the convention the force of domestic law. This means that trusts created in accordance with their governing law, whether specified by the settlor or determined by the trust’s closest connection to a specific jurisdiction, are recognised in Australia. This recognition ensures that foreign trusts established under foreign laws are acknowledged and enforceable within the Australian legal system.

Samoa Trusts for International Estate and Tax Planning

A Samoa Trust presents a highly advantageous domicile for asset management and estate planning, offering a range of unique benefits. Key among these is the allowance for 100% foreign control, where all involved parties such as the settlor, beneficiaries, trustee, protector, and enforcer can be foreigners, and the trust’s assets can be held in any country. In terms of privacy, Samoa Trusts excel, especially non-commercial trusts, which are not required to register with the government. For commercially active trusts, registration is necessary, but crucial information, including the names of the settlor and beneficiaries as well as asset descriptions and locations, remains confidential.

The process of forming a Samoa Trust is remarkably efficient, with the possibility of establishing the trust within just one day. Another significant advantage is the tax exemption for non-resident settlors and beneficiaries. In terms of asset protection, Samoa Trusts offer a strong shield, granting a two-year window for creditors to file claims and ensuring that Samoa courts do not recognise foreign court judgments or laws that conflict with Samoa’s own legislation.

For estate planning, Samoa Trusts are particularly beneficial due to their potential for perpetual life, allowing for multi-generational estate planning and legal tax avoidance strategies. Additionally, the settlor of a Samoa Trust retains considerable control, with the ability to retain powers and appoint overseers to safeguard the interests of the beneficiaries and uphold the trust’s purposes. Furthermore, as Samoa is a former New Zealand Colony, English is one of its official languages, adding a layer of convenience and accessibility for English-speaking individuals in managing and establishing a Samoa Trust.

Trusts for International Estate Planning: Key Issues Call For Expert Advice

For cross-border families, trusts stand out as a cornerstone of international estate planning. Their flexibility, ability to offer asset protection, and efficiency in tax planning make them an unrivaled choice for managing diverse, global assets. The nuanced understanding of different types of trusts, from Samoa Trusts to family and discretionary trusts, illuminates the path to informed decision-making. Whether your assets span continents or you seek to instill enduring family governance, trusts offer a tailored solution to meet these needs. To navigate the complexities of international estate planning and tailor a trust structure that aligns with your unique circumstances, we are here to help. Our expertise in cross-border estate planning ensures that your legacy is preserved and managed according to your vision. Contact us today to secure a future that spans beyond borders.


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Raea Khan Circle
Director Lawyer
Raea Khan

Raea is Managing Director and Principal Lawyer for PBl Law Group. Raea assists clients with major projects, property developments, construction and strata law.

He has worked in Western Australia and Queensland assisting with expansion projects in the energy and resource sector and now predominately advises clients in Strata and Community Association matters.

He is a member of the Australian College of Strata Lawyers where majority of his work is advising developers and owners corporations with dispute related minor and major defects, strata governance and common property litigation. He is proficient at leading negotiations and meetings.

Raea has a particular interest in the commercial aspect of any dispute and always tries to weigh up the risk, reward and benefit of legal proceedings at each different stage.

Raea enjoys all forms of competitive sport, including Crossfit and actively participates in Triathlons, representing Australia as an age group athlete. He was a member of Red Head Surf Lifesaving club.

  • Strata Law
  • Construction & Major Projects
  • Commercial and Business Law
  • Planning & Environment Law