Contracting with Trusts – Is a Majority Resolution Valid?

“Externally, trustees cannot disagree. In the external sphere the Trust functions by virtue of its resolutions, which have to be supported by the full complement of the Trust body.” (Extract from judgment below)

A recent Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) judgment provides yet another reminder to tread carefully when contracting with trusts. Your agreements with a trust will be invalid and unenforceable if the trustees acting for the trust weren’t properly authorised to bind the trust.

But must trustee resolutions always be taken unanimously by all of the appointed trustees to be valid, or will a majority decision ever suffice? The SCA addressed that question in the context of a trust seeking to escape from a suretyship which had not been unanimously agreed to and signed by all three trustees acting jointly –

When a majority trustee decision isn’t enough
  • A creditor sued a property trust for payment under a suretyship given to it by the trust. The trust countered that the suretyship was invalid because the resolution authorising trustees to sign the suretyship was not authorised and signed by all three trustees, but only by two of them.
  • Indeed, only two of the trustees had attended the trustee meeting at which the suretyship was discussed. The third trustee had not been at the meeting and did not sign either the resolution authorising the suretyship to be signed or the actual suretyship.
  • The meeting itself was in order, in that the trust deed provided for two trustees to constitute a quorum for meetings. But the deed also provided that a unanimous decision was required for the trust “to conduct business on behalf of and for the benefit of the Trust, and to employ trust property in such business”.
  • In any event, as the Court put it: “…trustees must act jointly in taking decisions and resolutions for the benefit of the Trust and beneficiaries thereof, unless a specific majority clause provides otherwise” and “Even when the trust deed provides for a majority decision, the resolutions must be signed by all the trustees. (Emphasis added)
  • As it was neatly put in an earlier High Court decision: “A majority of trustees in office may form a quorum internally at a trust meeting, but can still not externally bind a trust by acting together … It is not the majority vote, but rather the resolution by the entire complement which binds a trust estate. A trust operates on resolutions and not votes.” (Emphasis added)
  • As only two of the three trustees had acted for the trust in this case, the Court held both the resolution and the suretyship to be invalid and unenforceable.
So, what does that mean for you in practice when contracting with a trust?

Internal trust matters: Internal matters (such as using trust income for the benefit of beneficiaries or administering trust assets) “may be debated and put to a vote, thereafter the voice of the majority will prevail.”

External trust matters: As an outsider however your dealings with the trust will relate to external trust matters (transactions relating to trust property with the outside world such as buying and selling property, signing suretyships and the like) and here unanimity is essential for the trust to be bound. Even when the trust deed allows majority decisions, all the trustees must still participate in the decision-making and all of them must sign a resolution to make it valid externally. Make sure therefore that all trustees signing for the trust have the power to do so per the trust deed and by a valid, unanimous resolution.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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