Discretionary Trusts in Will


Estate planning is a crucial process for ensuring your assets are distributed according to your wishes after your passing, to help with this there are many types of trusts. When navigating complex family dynamics or concerns about beneficiary responsibility, discretionary trusts in wills can be a valuable tool. This comprehensive guide explores the intricacies of discretionary trusts, delving into their definition, benefits, practical applications, and key considerations for effective implementation.

What are Discretionary Trusts in Wills?

A discretionary trust, established within your will, is a legal arrangement where you, the testator, transfer ownership of assets to designated trustees. These trustees hold and manage the assets for the benefit of a designated group of people known as beneficiaries.

The defining characteristic of discretionary trusts lies in the flexibility they offer. Unlike a straightforward bequest in your will, trustees have the discretion to decide on three key aspects:

  • Beneficiary Selection:

     You can name a broad pool of potential beneficiaries, encompassing your children, grandchildren, or even your spouse. The trustees then hold the power to determine which beneficiaries receive a share of the trust assets.

  • Distribution Timing:

     Trustees have the authority to distribute income and capital from the trust at their discretion. This allows them to consider each beneficiary’s unique circumstances and distribute funds when it’s most beneficial.

  • Distribution Amount:

     The amount allocated to each beneficiary isn’t predetermined. Trustees can distribute unequal shares based on individual needs and future goals.

Benefits of Utilising Discretionary Trusts in Wills

Discretionary trusts offer a multitude of advantages for those planning their estates:

  • Enhanced Flexibility:

     As previously mentioned, the ability to adapt distributions based on changing circumstances is a significant benefit. This flexibility proves particularly useful for beneficiaries who might not be financially responsible yet or face unforeseen situations.

  • Vulnerable Beneficiary Protection:

     If you have a beneficiary with a disability, addiction, or a tendency towards poor financial decisions, a discretionary trust allows you to provide for their needs without handing them a lump sum that could be mismanaged. The trustees can distribute funds responsibly, ensuring long-term security.

  • Potential Tax Advantages:

     Depending on your circumstances, discretionary trusts can offer tax benefits. However, it’s crucial to consult with a legal and tax professional to understand the specific tax implications.

  • Reduced Risk of Relationship Strain:

     By avoiding fixed allocations, discretionary trusts can help minimise potential arguments or resentment among beneficiaries who might feel their share is unfair. The trustees can make informed decisions based on individual needs, promoting family harmony.

Practical Applications of Discretionary Trusts

Discretionary trusts can be a valuable tool in various situations, including:

  • Minor Children:

     You can ensure your children are financially cared for even if they are young and haven’t yet developed the maturity to handle a large inheritance. The trustees can manage the assets until your children reach a certain age or achieve specific milestones, such as completing their education.

  • Blended Families:

     Discretionary trusts can help ensure fairness and minimise conflict within blended families. You can provide for all your beneficiaries while considering the needs of each family unit. The trustees can distribute assets in a way that promotes cohesion and avoids disputes.

  • Beneficiary with Special Needs:

     If you have a beneficiary with a disability, a trust allows you to provide for their ongoing care without jeopardising their eligibility for government benefits. The trust structure ensures their needs are met while maintaining access to essential government programs.

  • Beneficiary in Debt:

     A trust can protect your inheritance from creditors if a beneficiary has existing or potential future debts. Trustees can distribute funds responsibly to avoid financial hardship for the beneficiary while protecting the inheritance from creditors.

Considerations for Implementing Discretionary Trusts

While discretionary trusts offer significant benefits, there are also important factors to consider for effective implementation:

  • Cost: Setting up and administering a trust involves legal fees. It’s essential to ensure the potential advantages outweigh the costs for your specific situation.
  • Choosing Trustworthy Trustees:    Selecting responsible and trustworthy individuals to act as trustees is crucial. Consider their financial acumen, understanding of your wishes, and willingness to manage the trust effectively.
  • Letter of Wishes: While not legally binding, a letter of wishes outlines your intentions for the trust. This document can guide the trustees in making decisions but doesn’t restrict their discretion.
  • Tax Implications: Tax laws regarding trusts can be complex. Seek professional advice from a qualified estate planning attorney to understand the potential tax consequences. An estate planning attorney can ensure your trust is structured in a way that minimises tax burdens for your beneficiaries. See our Inheritance Tax calculator

Beyond the Basics: Advanced Considerations

For a thorough understanding of discretionary trusts, it’s important to delve into some advanced considerations:

Types of Discretionary Trusts: There are various types of discretionary trusts, each with its own nuances. Some common types include:

Accumulation and Distribution Trusts: These trusts allow the trustees to accumulate income within the trust and distribute it at a later date. This can be beneficial for beneficiaries who might not be ready to handle a large sum of money immediately.

Interest in Possession (Life Interest) Trusts: These trusts provide income to a beneficiary for their lifetime, with the remaining assets passing to another beneficiary upon their death. This can be used to ensure a spouse receives financial support for life while ultimately passing assets to children.

Protective Trusts: These trusts are specifically designed to protect the assets from creditors or mismanagement on behalf of the beneficiary. The terms of the trust dictate how and when the beneficiary receives the assets.

Powers of the Trustee: The scope of a trustee’s power varies depending on the trust document. Common powers include the authority to invest assets, distribute income and capital, and manage trust property. Understanding the specific powers granted to the trustee is crucial for both the grantor (person establishing the trust) and the beneficiaries.

Fiduciary Duty: Trustees have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries. This means they must make decisions based on impartiality and avoid any actions that could benefit themselves or anyone else at the expense of the beneficiaries.

  • Review and Amendment: Discretionary trusts are not static documents. It’s advisable to periodically review the trust with your estate planning attorney to ensure it continues to reflect your wishes, especially in light of changes in your family circumstances or financial situation. The trust may also be amended through a legal process if necessary.


Discretionary trusts in wills can be a powerful tool for estate planning, offering flexibility, protection, and potential tax benefits. By carefully considering the factors outlined in this guide, you can determine if a discretionary trust is the right fit for your unique situation. Consulting with a qualified estate planning advisor is essential to ensure your trust is properly established and aligns with your overall estate planning goals. They can guide you through the legal complexities, navigate tax implications, and ensure your loved ones are cared for according to your wishes.

Remember, a well-crafted discretionary trust can provide peace of mind, knowing your assets are managed effectively and distributed thoughtfully for the benefit of your beneficiaries.