Treatments of Trusts on Divorce

Treatments of Trusts on Divorce

It often comes as a surprise how much discretion a family Judge has to distribute the resources on divorce.

These resources can include a whole raft of assets including company shares, pensions and interests in trusts.

In recent times Judges have taken a more bullish approach to trusts. Judges will find what they think are the right solutions for a divorcing couple, and will find an appropriate interpretation of the law to achieve this. It is fair to say that more and more applications are being made to join Trustees as parties to financial litigation on divorce.

How the courts will deal with a trust will depend on whether the trust in question is an ante or post nuptial settlement.


Under The Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 the Divorce court has power to VARY the terms of ante and post nuptial settlements.

Thus the court can make orders directly against Trustees requiring them to vary the settlement in some way for example:

  • By ordering payment of capital to either spouse or child (even if not a beneficiary).
  • By ordering a transfer of property to either spouse or child (even if not a beneficiary).
  • By ordering a change of Trustees.

Many trusts are ante or post nuptial settlements even if the Settlor, the trustees and the beneficiaries are unaware of the fact!

Such settlements are not restricted to old fashioned marriage settlements but they must have a ‘nuptial’ element.

Judges have defined ‘nuptial’ very widely. So much so that a court might have great difficulty in saying that any deed which settles property after marriage is not nuptial. If a settlement is made before marriage then in reality there should be some kind of connection to the marriage or spouse. However the Judge’s discretion has meant that where a couple had been removed as beneficiaries of the trust during the marriage, the court
still held it to be a nuptial settlement and went on to vary the terms of it.


Although the court cannot make orders varying these trusts, Judges will not ignore them. The court has a duty to consider all the resources which a party has, or is likely to have, in the foreseeable future, even discretionary benefits under a trust.

In such circumstances the court will look at the history of discretionary distributions (or lack of them) throughout the life of the trust to consider whether there is evidence available to indicate that a Trustee would be likely to advance sums to a party. The court can then make orders against that party knowing that individual does not personally have the means to comply. The court will assume that the individual will take steps to acquire the means by asking the trustees for an advancement of capital.

The court can also order a party to pay a lump sum to a spouse deferred to when his or her trust interest falls due.

Furthermore, the court can order a greater share of the non trust assets to, say the wife, on the basis that trust assets are available to the husband.

The Supreme Court has also found that companies controlled by a spouse can, in some circumstances, be held to own company assets in trust for that spouse. The company assets were therefore capable of being transferred in matrimonial proceedings to the other spouse.


It is not unusual for third party interests to be affected. Each case is looked at on its own merits and it would not be uncommon for trustees and third party beneficiaries to be represented.

If the trust is offshore then the court can still make the provisions described above even if the offshore Trustees haven’t been made a party to the proceedings thereby submitting to the English courts. However the English court will look to the enforceability of varying the trust (i.e. binding the trustees) in the jurisdiction where the trust is. If it appears that it would be difficult to enforce in that jurisdiction then the court will take that it into account when considering the division of other assets on shore.

Some jurisdictions have followed the English courts orders. This is particularly so in Jersey where the Jersey court in the past has shown that it is likely to follow the doctrine of comity between courts and order the Jersey Trustees to be bound by the variation. However this is not always the case and will often depend on the precise wording of the trust. In particular, providing the trustees with the power to release funds may be a crucial factor in whether funds are released to a spouse or not.

Jersey’s Royal Court has also been willing to assist in protecting the interests of other beneficiaries which may be ‘under attack’ from a soon to be ex-spouse. In more recent years therefore even the Jersey courts have attempted to retain autonomy over Jersey trusts.

The information contained in this article is designed to provide, for guidance purposes only, a general introductory summary of the subject matters covered. It does not purport to be exhaustive nor to provide legal advice nor should be used as a substitute for such advice.

© Stevens & Bolton LLP 2015

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