How does a family trust work?

The information below provides a general overview of how a family trust operates and explains some of the commercial advantages and What is a Family Trust?disadvantages of conducting business or investing with a family trust structure.

There are many tax planning, asset protection and distribution of wealth issues to be considered before a decision is made to establish a family trust. For those who intend using this tax structure, this information should be used as starting point only. Talk to us for a more detailed discussion about the suitability of a trust structure for your circumstances.

Many accounting and legal matters, such as, stamp duty and land tax, have not been addressed here. We are not in a position to advise you, trustees and beneficiaries should read the trust deed to fully understand their rights, powers, obligations and duties. This guide is not intended to replace any legal or tax advice; readers should consult a qualified practitioner for advice.

All Sorted Business Services is a registered Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) Agent and is able to create companies and trusts on behalf of our clients and act on your behalf in relation to ASIC requirements. Visit our online shop to purchase a fixed price family trust

What is a Discretionary Family Trust?

A discretionary family trust is established for a family with a payment of an amount, called “settled sum”, by the settlor to the trustee. It is to be held in trust in accordance with the deed, for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Many business owners prefer to run their businesses under a trust structure due to the many advantages that it offers over other structures

A family trust is where the beneficiaries are all predominantly family or related members of the same family and the trustee has full discretion which beneficiary gets which distribution portion of income or capital of the trust.

The trustee owns the property of the trust and distributes each year; income of the trust, to various family members with a common purpose. This common purpose includes minimizing the total income tax to be paid on trust’s net income.

A family trust runs for 80 years or earlier, this termination date is called “vesting day”, when beneficiaries are entitled to the whole of the trust fund. Until that day, the trust assets are held by the trustee.

A Discretionary trust which makes a family trust election is known as Discretionary Family Trust. We sell online Discretionary trust deed where the trustee can make a family trust election with the ATO.

Advantages of Discretionary Family Trust

A family trust structure has many advantages over other tax structures like, partnership, company etc, however it has some limitations. Below is a list of advantages, please note that this list is not exhaustive.

Income Tax Advantages of a Family Trust

In addition to the information below, the Australian Tax Office provides some useful information on family trusts and how they work within the tax system.

Distribution of income

  • Net income in a financial year can be distributed amongst beneficiaries of the family trust in a way which minimizes total income tax payable by the family unit. This distribution has to be included in the beneficiaries’ income in the financial year when the family trust has earned the income and not the year when the income is distributed, e.g. trust income of $10,000 is earned in financial year ended 30th June 2010 and distributed to the beneficiary on 15th August 2011, this income has to be included in the beneficiaries income tax return for the financial year ended 30th June 2010 and not 2011.

Classification of income

  • The classification of trust income, for example, dividend income, foreign income, or capital gain continues to be recognized under the same classification in the individual beneficiary’s income tax return and any imputation credit or foreign tax credits flows through to the beneficiaries as per trustee’s discretion.

Distribution of income to children

  • If beneficiaries are under 18 years of age, by distributing income to them, trustees can avail their tax free threshold and low income rebates.

Pay Company Tax Rate

  • If there are no individual beneficiaries in marginal tax rate lower than company tax rate (at the time of writing 30%), then trustees can distribute income of the trust to a (new and not trustee) company and pay tax on income at the company tax rate.

Retaining Income in the Family Trust

  • The trustee can decide not to distribute any income of the family trust and instead accumulate income of the trust. The trustee is liable to pay tax on the net income of the trust at the highest Individual tax rate. However, the commissioner of taxation has the discretion to charge tax rates applicable to an individual of an identical amount. When income is accumulated, it forms the part of the trust fund and not taxable to the beneficiaries when distributed on vesting date. Unpaid present entitlements can be an issue in some cases, we recommend that you speak to a suitably qualified solicitor or accountant.

Distribute to a Super Fund

  • Only net income of the family trust has to be distributed, a family trust can also contribute to superannuation for a beneficiary, which means that tax on income of the family trust can be limited to the tax rate on contribution to superannuation which at the time of writing is 15%.

Claim a Refund for Imputation Credits

  • If a family trust has a loss and has received imputation credits in the financial year, the family trust can lodge its own income tax return and carry forward the loss to the next financial year and claim a refund of imputation credits.

Capital Gains Tax Advantages

  • On disposal of any asset of the family trust, it is entitled to a 50% discount factor on capital gains, if assets are disposed after one year, this discount flows through to beneficiaries’ on distribution.
  • If trustee distributes trust assets to a beneficiary, capital gain event triggers and the trustee will be deemed to have sold the asset to the beneficiary at its market value. This capital gain can be allocated / distributed to the same beneficiary or to another beneficiary with the discount factor if applicable.

Asset Protection Advantages of  Family Trust

  • One of the main features of a discretionary family trust is its asset protection capability. Assets which are held in a trust fund for the benefit of a particular person(s) as distinct from assets directly owned by him/them are automatically protected from that person’s creditors. This can be very important in certain professions like doctors, lawyers and accountants or those who are prone to litigation or in situations where business venture may become bankrupt.
  • Assets which are being held in a family trust fund prior to marriage, for the benefit of a one party can similarly have advantage in matrimonial disputes.
  • For estate planning purposes, if a person has already become bankrupt, assets passing on to him directly, say, from your parents, will straight away become available to his trustee in bankruptcy proceedings. However, if assets are passed on to a discretionary family trust established for the benefit of you and your family the trustee of the trust can ensure that the distributions to that person are timed in a manner consistent with expiry of bankruptcy period. These assets can be protected from the bankruptcy proceedings

However, family courts in certain situations are known to have ‘seen through’ the trust arrangements and allocated assets held in a family trust amongst spouses. Likewise, few recent cases have raised the possibility of a trustee in bankruptcy accessing the assets in a discretionary family trust over which the bankrupt beneficiary has ‘de facto’ control, we recommend that you take your own legal advice.

Other Advantages of a Family Trust

  • Any distribution to a beneficiary need not be physically paid to them. If the beneficiary agrees, trustee can retain money which it has decided to distribute to beneficiary and establish a bare trust for that beneficiary within the family trust. The trustee can then invest that money on behalf of the beneficiary as per powers given to them by the trust deed.
  • Money’s belonging to beneficiaries who are under a legal disability, like minors distribution money from a family trust, can be held by the trustee, in trust, till they reach 18 years of age. The trustee may apply money held for minor beneficiary in payment of education, clothing and other similar expenses which are for maintenance, education or benefit of minor beneficiary. Alternatively, trustees can distribute minor’s money, to their parent or guardian.
  • Can safeguard certain social security payments for beneficiaries.

Disadvantages of a family trust

The main disadvantage of operating with a family trust structure is that it cannot distribute capital or revenue losses to beneficiaries. Hence, when a family trust incurs a loss beneficiaries are not able to offset that loss against any other assessable income that they may derive from other sources such as salary, interest, dividend etc. However, losses can be held within the family trust structure to be used to offset against future profits.

Why do we need a trust deed?

Family trusts are created by a legal document called a “trust deed” prepared by a solicitor which outlines the purpose of the trust, the rights and obligations of the trustees and beneficiaries, powers of the trustee, and identifies various parties such as initial Beneficiaries, Trustee(s) & Appointor.

What are the various roles within a trust?

The Settlor

A family trust is created by “declaration of trust” on property of the trust or by payment of settlement of money by a person called the “settlor” to the person called the “trustee”, to deal with trust funds as provided in the deed of settlement.

Care should be taken that Settlor of a Family Trust is an independent person. Settlor cannot be a trustee and can not be a beneficiary of the trust and nor his spouse or children be beneficiaries.

A trustee of a family trust or a beneficiary cannot act as settlor. The settlor is usually a friend or accountant who helps the client to establish the Discretionary trust. The settlor has no right to income or capital of the trust assets. Once the settled sum has been paid by the settlor and trust deed executed, it has no further role.

When property is transferred to the family trust from a family member, as settlement money, there could be stamp duty & capital gain tax issues, care should be taken to decide this amount. Usually this amount is below duty amount and is only $10.

The Appointor

The appointor can remove / replace trustee. The appointor “in de facto” controls the trust. If the trustee does not follow the appointor’s directions, the appointor can simply remove the trustee and appoint another.

It is not necessary to name an appointor. However, to handle the situations such as the death or insolvency of a trustee, it is advisable to name an appointor. A beneficiary or even the settlor could be named as an appointor. The “initial appointor” is usually mentioned in a schedule to the trust deed. The deed allows appointor to resign and nominate another person(s) as appointor. If the appointor dies without nominating someone else the deceased appointor’s legal representative can become an appointor.

The Trustee

The Trustee is appointed by Settlor with powers contained in the trust deed. Trustee owes a duty of care of “good faith” to the beneficiaries and the deed requires that all trustee(s), at all times, act in best interests of all beneficiaries.

Trustee(s) may be held personally liable for debts incurred in their capacity as a trustee but have the right to be indemnified out of the assets of the family trust. A trustee can resign if he / she so wishes by giving notice to appointor or to all beneficiaries.

A Trustee is responsible to look after trust funds by investing & managing it and distributing to various beneficiaries at the end of the financial year. They must also maintain books of account and lodge relevant income tax returns with the tax office.

Who should be Trustee of a family trust?

A Trustee can either be one or few individual(s) or a company. Individual trustee(s) should not be below 18 years of age and should not be a disqualified person(s). If trustee is a company, its affairs are controlled by its directors and eventually by its shareholders by virtue of their power to appoint or remove directors.

Usually family members of a discretionary family trust create a (new) company to act as a trustee. They then nominate various family members as beneficiaries. Where there are not enough family members to reduce total tax to be paid by the family on trust income, advisors may recommend creating another company and appoint it as a beneficiary (see below). This allows tax to be paid on family trust income at company tax rates instead of higher Individual marginal tax rate.

Individual trustee(s) can also be beneficiaries. However, most advisors prefer a company to act as trustee of the family trust and family members (who can also be directors of the trustee company) to be beneficiaries of the trust.

There is no rule that Individual trustees cannot also be beneficiaries. However, since trustee(s) are to be seen to act in the benefit of ALL beneficiaries, having one or few Individual beneficiaries as trustee(s) may break that fiduciary duty of trustee(s). Hence many advisors prefer a company to act as trustee.


If you are the only individual trustee and are also the sole beneficiary of the trust, the trust may be invalid as a person cannot hold an asset on trust for his or her own benefit. In this situation, a new company can be established to act as a trustee with you as a sole director. Then you can be the sole beneficiary of the family trust.

    The Beneficiaries of a Family Trust

A beneficiary is a person for whose benefit the trustee holds trust property. In most family trust deeds “initial beneficiaries” are noted in a schedule. There are classes of beneficiary who can be parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, aunties, uncles, nephews, and nieces of initial beneficiaries. You can also have a related company or a charity as a class of beneficiary. You must be careful in nominating another trust as beneficiary of the original trust. This is because predominately income of the family trust must remain in the family. Other trusts may have other beneficiaries who are not family members of the original trust.

The root benefit of a discretionary family trust is to distribute income to beneficiaries who are likely to pay the least amount of income tax.

Due to this trustee’s discretion, the beneficial ownership of assets of the trust does not pass to any beneficiary till “vesting date”.

Trustee has legal ownership but not beneficial ownership of trust assets. Hence, even if a beneficiary becomes insolvent, his creditors cannot claw back assets of the trust.

Advantages of having a company as a trustee

Besides fiduciary duty advantage as listed above, following are other benefits of having a company as a trustee:

  • Assets of the family trust are held in the name of trustee(s). If the trustee is a company then private assets of Individual trustees should not be confused as trust assets;
  • In case of death of individual trustee all assets of the family trust have to be again transferred in the name of new individual trustee. However, if with a corporate trustee, there is no change of ownership even in the case of the death of a director of a trustee company;
  • The directors of Trustee Company can be beneficiaries in their individual capacity whilst still controlling the family trust.

Duties & Powers of Trustee

Trustee must act in “Good faith” whilst handling trust affairs. This means that trustee must put interest of the trust ahead of their personal interests. They must also act in a manner a person would in dealing his or her own personal assets.

  • follow the trust deed;
  • hold assets of the family trust and manage its investments;
  • engage experts for benefit of the trust;
  • delegate duties to a competent persons, however the trustee is still responsible for delegated tasks;
  • invest family trust’s assets in accordance with law and as per the trust deed;
  • to maintain proper accounts including minutes of trustee/directors meetings, lodge returns with ATO; and
  • to keep the family trust’s assets separate from other personal assets.

Whose name are assets held by a family trust?

The trustee is the legal owner of trust’s property. This means that trustee’s name should appear on all ownership documents, such as shares, managed funds, property etc. However, this ownership of asset is not in their own benefit right, but as a legal owner, on behalf of the trust.

Hence, wherever applicable, assets ownership documents should carry the tag “In Trust For”, or ITF or “As Trustee For” ATF. For example, the owner of the trust can be either “Mr R Smith ITF Smith Family Trust” , in case of individual trustee or “R Smith Pty Ltd ATF Smith Family Trust” in case of company trustee.

In some instances, the above name cannot be inserted in the ownership documents, as most land title offices do not recognise a trust and will only register title of property in the name of the trustee only. It is the trustee who will be the legal owner of the property. Land titles will not allow the above tag.

In these circumstances, property has to be registered in the name of Individual Trustee or company trustee. Some advisors recommend drawing up a separate “declaration of trust” deed for each such asset.

Vesting of a family trust

After 80 years of creation date, or earlier, if the trustee decides, the trust will “vest” or cease. The trustee will on “vesting date”, put together all the trust’s property, its capital and distribute to all beneficiaries.

Is any stamp duty payable on creation of a family trust?

If a family trust is created over an identifiable dutiable property, generally full duty is payable. It is calculated on the value of the dutiable property identified in the trust deed. Where the trust contains different types of dutiable property for which different stamp duty applies the trust will be charged the stamp duty as if a separate instrument had been created for each type of property. However, if a family trust is established over a non dutiable property a concessional rate of stamp duty or nil duty is applicable.

Do you need to register a business name?

If the family trust has a Corporate Trustee (A Company) that includes the business name, you may not need to register your business name separately. For example, if the business is to be called XYZ Trading and your company name is XYZ Trading Pty Ltd, you may be able to trade using the company name.

One thought on “How does a family trust work?”

  • Very interesting article I was wondering if it could be more. I read the entire article and came to know various powers vested in trustee and their role in running the business efficiently. please keep posting such business and accounts related articles for the beneficiaries. Well done.

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