Understanding the alter ego of a trust

alter ego
18 Dec 2023

A trust is a widely used legal entity for various purposes, including estate planning, asset protection, and the management of assets for the benefit of specific individuals or entities. Within the context of trusts, there exists a legal concept known as the “alter ego” of a trust, which is an essential consideration for trustees, beneficiaries, and anyone involved in trust-related matters.

Before delving into the concept of the alter ego of a trust, it’s essential to understand the fundamental nature of a trust. A trust is a legal arrangement where assets are transferred by a donor (or founder, being the person creating the trust) to trustees who hold and manage the assets for the benefit of beneficiaries. Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries and follow the terms of the trust deed.

The term “alter ego” in the context of a trust refers to the idea that a trust, although considered a separate legal entity, may sometimes be closely linked to the actions and intentions of its founder or the trustees. This concept recognises that, in some instances, a trust may be viewed as an extension of the donor’s or trustee’s own will and actions.

The concept of the alter ego of a trust is significant for several reasons: 

Fraud prevention: One of the primary concerns in trust law is the prevention of fraud and abuse. If a trust is considered the alter ego of its founder or trustees, it becomes vulnerable to being used for fraudulent purposes or as a mere facade to hide assets.

Piercing the veil: In some cases, South African courts may “pierce the veil” of a trust, treating it as an alter ego when determining matters such as civil liability or taxation. This means that the court may disregard the trust’s separate legal personality and attribute the trust’s actions or obligations to the individuals who effectively control it.

Proper administration: Recognising the alter ego concept serves to ensure that trusts are administered in a manner consistent with their intended purpose. This oversight can protect the interests of beneficiaries and promote transparency in trust management.

Best practices

To avoid potential legal issues and scrutiny related to the alter ego concept of a trust, trustees and donors (founders) should consider the following best practices:

Compliance: Ensure strict compliance with the terms of the trust deed and the law to maintain the trust’s separate legal identity.

Proper record keeping: Maintain accurate records of trust activities, including financial transactions and decisions made by the trustees.

Independent decision-making: Trustees should make decisions in the best interests of the beneficiaries and not for personal gain or to fulfil the desires of the donor.

Regular reviews: Periodically review the trust’s structure and purpose to ensure it aligns with the original intent.

Conclusion

Understanding the alter ego of a trust is crucial for trustees, beneficiaries, and anyone involved in trust management or disputes. Recognising the fine line between the trust’s separate legal personality and its connection to its founder or trustees is essential to ensure that trusts are administered transparently and lawfully. It is advisable to seek legal counsel and maintain proper documentation to adhere to the legal requirements and prevent potential issues related to the alter ego concept of a trust.

At SchoemanLaw Inc., our experienced legal professionals are here to assist you in all matters related to trust law, safeguarding your interests and the integrity of your trust.

See also:

(This article is provided for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. For more information on the topic, please contact the author/s or the relevant provider.)
Nicolene Schoeman-Louw

Mrs Nicolene Schoeman – Louw founded the firm in 2007, aged 24, and is now the Managing Director of the firm. Nicolene is an admitted Attorney of the High Court... Read more about Nicolene Schoeman-Louw

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