Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Changing an appointor - just like changing a trustee; simple! (in theory ...)


A previous post explored the key revenue issues in relation to changing the trustee of a discretionary trust (see - 'Changing trustees of trusts – Simple in theory … not so simple in practice').

An equally important and related issue concerns a decision to change the principal or appointor role of a family trust. That is, the person, people, or company having the unilateral right to remove and appoint a trustee.

As regular readers of this blog will know, there does not necessarily need to be an appointor or principal provision under a trust deed. However, where there is one, a trust deed itself will normally set out in some detail the way in which the role of appointor is dealt with on the death or incapacity of the person (or people) originally appointed.

Where there are no provisions in relation to the succession of the appointor role, it is often necessary to try and rely on any power of variation under the deed to achieve an equivalent outcome.

Generally, from a trust law perspective, it is possible for the appointor provisions to be amended. However, any intended change must be permitted by the trust instrument, meaning the starting point must always be to 'read the deed' – a mantra regularly profiled in this blog. The decision in Mercanti v Mercanti [2016] WASCA 206 (this Court of Appeal judgment stands following the High Court's refusal to reject an appeal) being a leading example of the principle in the context of purported changes to appointorship.

The tax and stamp duty consequences of changing an appointor can be similarly complex.

Stamp duty costs on changing an appointor

In broad terms, the stamp duty consequences of changing an appointor provision can normally be managed in most Australian states.

This said, care always needs to be taken, particularly where the trust deed simply defines the appointor by reference to some other named beneficiary in the trust.

For example, it can often be the case that the appointor is defined as being the primary beneficiary of the trust and that primary beneficiary may also be a default beneficiary.

In these circumstances, depending on how the deed is crafted, there may be stamp duty consequences of implementing any change.

Tax Office views on changing an appointor

In relation to the tax consequences of changing an appointor, there are a number of private rulings published by the Tax Office which support the ability to change an appointor role, particularly if it is part of a standard family succession plan.

Arguably the 2 leading private rulings concerning the tax consequences of changing an appointor are Authorisation numbers 1011616699832 and 1011623239706. Broadly, these each confirm that there should be no tax resettlement on the change of an appointor where –

  • The relevant trust deed provides the appointor with the power to nominate new appointors and also allows for the resignation of an appointor; 
  • The intended change complies with the trust deed (the "read the deed" mantra again highlighted); 
  • The proposed amendment is otherwise analogous with the changing of a trustee and is thus essentially procedural in nature; and 
  • The original intention of the settlor is not changed such that there will not be any change to the beneficiaries, the obligations of the trustee or the terms or nature of the trust. 
Clark case

The conclusion that there should be no adverse tax consequences on changing an appointor is also supported by the decision in FCT v Clark [2011] FCAFC 5 ("Clark") and which has been profiled previously in this blog.

In particular, the Full Federal Court in Clark held that significant changes to a trust instrument would not of themselves cause a resettlement of the trust for tax purposes, so long as there is a continuum of property and membership, that can be identified at any time, even if different from time to time. That meant that, in Clark, although there had been a change of trustee, a change of control of the trust, a change in the trust assets and a change in the unitholders of the trust between 2 income years, this did not trigger a resettlement for tax purposes.

Rather, it is only where a trust has been effectively deprived of all assets and then 're-endowed', that a resettlement will occur.

While the Tax Office released a Taxation Determination (namely TD 2012/21) following Clark, it unfortunately does not provide any specific commentary around when the Tax Office will deem changes to an appointor or principal of a trust to amount to a capital gains tax event under CGT events E1 and E2 (ie a resettlement).

Rather, in broad terms, the Tax Office simply states that unless variations cause a trust to terminate, then there will be no resettlement for tax purposes.

While a number of examples are provided, which give some guidance around issues such as changes of beneficiaries and updates to address distribution of trust income, the examples ignore issues such as changing appointors and multiple changes (for example, changing beneficiaries, the trustee and the appointor as part of an estate planning exercise).

In conclusion - 1 related issue


Subject to the terms of the relevant trust deed, a change to the appointor or principal provisions should have no adverse revenue consequences. Any change should, even if not expressly required by the deed, be done with the consent of the incumbent appointor. This is because of the significant ultimate powers retained by the appointor.

This conclusion about the extent of an appointor's powers however does not mean that where an appointor or principal is declared bankrupt, their power of appointment is considered 'property' which vests in and can be exercised by the trustee in bankruptcy.

Historically, there has been some confusion around this issue, given that the property of a bankrupt under the Bankruptcy Act which is available for distribution to creditors includes "the capacity to exercise, and to take proceedings for exercising, all such powers in, over or in respect of property as might have been exercised by the bankrupt for his own benefit…".

However, it has been held that the right of a bankrupt to exercise a power of appointment under a discretionary trust is not property of the bankrupt (see Re Burton; ex parte Wily v Burton (1994) 126 ALR 557).

In that case, the argument of the trustee in bankruptcy centred on the fact that Mr Burton was the appointor and a discretionary beneficiary of a family trust. He could in theory therefore appoint himself (or an entity that he controlled) as trustee.

In rejecting the argument, it was held that the powers of an appointor are fiduciary powers that must be exercised accordingly, in the interest of the beneficiaries.

In other words, the powers of an appointor must be exercised solely in furtherance of the purpose for which they were conferred.

This means that the powers of an appointor do not amount to 'property' that passes to a trustee in bankruptcy.

The powers are also not something that can be exercised by the bankrupt for their own benefit.

The above article is based on an article that we originally contributed to the Weekly Tax Bulletin.

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