Trustees are of course supposed to work together to protect and further the interests of their trust and its beneficiaries, but the fact is that on occasion serious disputes can and do arise.
If settlement negotiations fail and if there is no alternative but to forcibly remove a trustee our courts have the power to do so, on the application of either the Master of the High Court or of “any person having an interest in the Trust property”.
What must you prove for removal?
As to the grounds on which a court will agree to remove a trustee, a recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment confirms that “loss of mutual trust and respect does not, without more, translate to a ground for the removal of a trustee, or to a conclusion that the Trust property has been imperiled [Put at risk of being harmed, injured, or destroyed]. It must further be established that, as a result, the Trust property has been imperiled or the administration of the Trust and the management of its property are at risk. That is a factual enquiry …The determinative test is always whether any state of affairs – be it incompetence, misconduct, incapacity, or lack of trust and respect among trustees or beneficiaries – has resulted in the Trust property or its proper administration being placed at risk.” (Emphasis supplied).
Importantly the Court added that in exercising its power to remove a trustee, “the courts do so with circumspection”.
Your work, in other words, is cut out for you.
Fighting in a family trust – the outcome
A deceased businessman’s R2.8m share portfolio and a 75% share in a property-owning company were vested in a family trust, in which the deceased’s mother, step-father, brother, wife, adult children and accountant were all involved in one capacity or another.
In short, relationships between the role-players soured, involving a flurry of accusations and counter-accusations of theft (reciprocal criminal charges being laid), oppressive conduct, conflicts of interest, collusion, vendettas – the list goes on.
The wife (as trustee and beneficiary) together with her sons (the other beneficiaries), applied for the removal of the trustee in question, and after a long – and no doubt expensive – trek through the courts, ended up in the SCA.
Finding on the proved facts that “the state of the relationship of the appellant and the respondent has not imperiled the Trust property or its proper administration. I find no other basis on which it would be in the interests of the Trust and its beneficiaries to remove the appellant” the SCA reversed a High Court order removing the trustee. The trustees are it seems just going to have to work this one through themselves.