High Court Approves Trustees' Decision in Folds Farm Case Despite Beneficiary Disagreements

Citation: [2024] EWHC 12 (Ch)
Judgment on

Introduction

In the case of Folds Farm Trustees Limited & Anor v Oliver Alister Sydney Cutts & Ors [2024] EWHC 12 (Ch), the High Court was tasked with considering whether to bless a trustees’ decision involving a significant trust asset – a farm. The case presented complex issues surrounding trustees’ powers and discretion, valuation of trust property, and conflicts of interest, set against the backdrop of a family trust where emotions and disagreements between beneficiaries were prominent.

Key Facts

The farm, being the primary asset of two trusts, was sought to be appointed to one of the beneficiaries, Alister Cutts, at a price below its professional valuation. The claimants, who were the trustees, sought court approval of this decision due to the significance of the matter. The female beneficiaries opposed the decision, contending that it was unfair, improperly considered, and influenced by conflicts of interest.

Discretionary Trust and Trustees’ Powers

The court reaffirmed that in a discretionary trust, trustees are not obligated to treat all beneficiaries equally. Given the wide discretion in such trusts, trustees can confer benefits unequally amongst beneficiaries as long as their decision is lawful, made in good faith, and not influenced by irrelevant factors or conflicts of interest.

Public Trustee v Cooper

Citing Public Trustee v Cooper, the court’s role in this ‘category 2’ blessing case is to ensure the proposed action by trustees is lawful, falls within their powers, and the decision was one a reasonable body of trustees could arrive at. The trustees must demonstrate they considered all relevant factors without being influenced by any collateral purposes.

Valuations and ‘Price’ Setting

The court highlighted that trustees are not expected to obtain the highest possible price for trust property, especially when the property is to be appointed to a beneficiary. The trustees were entitled to take into account a multitude of factors, including the wishes of the settlor, the historical operation of the trust, the position of all beneficiaries, and the practicality of the decisions surrounding trust property.

Management of Conflicts of Interest

Allegations of bias and conflicts of interest were dismissed by the court. The trustees adequately managed these by pursuing the court’s blessing for their decision and acting on professional advice.

Outcomes

The court approved the trustees’ decision to appoint Folds Farm to Alister Cutts for a sum of £4.2 million, which is lower than the valuations presented. The decision was found to be within the margins of what a reasonable trustee body could have arrived at. The trustees had considered all the relevant factors, including the settlor’s wishes for the farm to remain within the family, and the objections raised by the daughters were not considered sufficient to invalidate the decision.

Conclusion

In Folds Farm Trustees Limited & Anor v Oliver Alister Sydney Cutts & Ors, the court provided affirmation of the principles guiding the discretion of trustees in managing and disposing of trust assets. This case highlighted the balance that trustees must achieve between the interests of various beneficiaries, their duty to act within the scope of their powers and in good faith, and the necessity to approach momentous decisions with thorough consideration and free of conflicts of interest. The ruling reinforces that when trustees act judiciously and are supported by professional advice, even decisions involving significant elements of ‘gifting’ can withstand judicial scrutiny.

The decision serves as a reminder to practitioners that within discretionary trusts, the trustees retain a broad scope to assess what is best for the trust estate and beneficiaries as a whole, and that judicial intervention is typically reserved for instances where this discretion is improperly executed or exercised beyond the confines of the trust deed and the law.

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