Income Tax Act, 1961, Wealth Tax Act, 1957

Important Principles of law on Taxation of Discretionary & Specific Trusts Explained

The ex-Ruler of Gondal Shri Vikram sinhji executed three deeds of settlements (Trust Deeds) in the USA & UK. These trusts were created for the benefit of (a) the Settlor, (b) the children and remoter issue for the time being in existence of the Settlor and (c) any person for the time being in existence who is the wife or widow of the Settlor or the wife or widow or husband or widower of any of them, the children and remoter issue of the Settlor. During his life time, the Settlor, Shri Vikram sinhji, was including the whole of the income arising from these trusts in his returns of income. The said income was also included in the two returns filed by his son Jyotendra sinhiji for the AY 1970-71. Thereafter, the assessee took the stand that the income from these trusts is not includible in his income. Jyotendra sinhiji also took the stand that inclusion of the said income in the returns submitted by his father for the AYs 1964-65 to 1969-70 and by himself for the assessment year 1970-71 was under a mistake. Clause 3 of the deeds of settlement executed in U.K. leaves at the discretion of the trustees to disburse benefits to the beneficiaries. The endorsement made in the returns, as noted above, shows that income was retained by the trustees and not disbursed.

The Tribunal while considering clause 3(2) and Clause 4 of the U.K. Trust Deeds observed that if the trusts were really intended to be discretionary, the trustees had a duty cast on them to ascertain the relative needs and personal circumstances of all the beneficiaries and to allocate the income of the trusts, among them from time to time, according to the objects of the trusts, however, the tell-tale facts bring out the intention of the settlor to treat the trust property as his own. The settlor and after his death his son have been showing the income of foreign trusts in the returns of income filed from time to time. Had the trust deeds been really understood by the trustees and the beneficiaries as discretionary by virtue of the operation of clause 3, one would have expected the state of affairs to have been different. Consequently, the Tribunal held that due to failure on the part of the Maharaja to appoint discretion exercisers as per clause 3(2), clause 4 has become operative and the U.K. trusts have to be held to be specific trusts. The High court did not agree with the Tribunal’s view and held that on interpretation of the relevant clauses of the deeds of settlement executed in U.K., character of the trusts was discretionary and not specific.

On appeal by the department to the Supreme Court HELD dismissing the appeal:A discretionary trust is one which gives a beneficiary no right to any part of the income of the trust property, but vests in the trustees a discretionary power to pay him, or apply for his benefit, such part of the income as they think fit. The trustees must exercise their discretion as and when the income becomes available, but if they fail to distribute in due time, the power is not extinguished so that they can distribute later. They have no power to bind themselves for the future. The beneficiary thus has no more than a hope that the discretion will be exercised in his favour. Having regard to the above legal position about the discretionary trust which is also applied by this Court in the earlier judgment and the fact that the income has been retained and not disbursed to the beneficiaries, the view taken by the High Court cannot be said to be legally flawed. Merely because the Settlor and after his death, his son did not exercise their power to appoint the discretion exercisers, the character of the subject trusts does not get altered. The two U.K. trusts continued to be ‘discretionary trust’ for the subject assessment years. The High Court has taken a correct view that the value of the assets cannot be assessed on the estate of the deceased Settlor.