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What happens when a trust’s trustees fall out and go to war with each other? If a polite request to the minority trustee to resign bears no fruit, can the majority forcibly remove him or her? And if so, must they have good reason to do so?

First question of course is what the founding trust deed provides for such a situation, but a recent High Court decision lays additional ground rules for trustees that anyone involved in a trust (in any capacity) should know about.

The case saw a mother facing off against three professionals (two auditors and an attorney) and the latter’s attempt to replace the mother with another trustee ran into troubled waters.

“Animosity and difference of opinion are not sufficient to have a trustee removed from office and/or for the majority of trustees to unilaterally force another to vacate his/her office…” (Extract from judgment below)

When family infighting impacts a family trust, an early casualty is often the relationship between the appointed trustees and beneficiaries, and/or between the trustees themselves.

And if that results in irreconcilable differences and conflict between the trustees, the only answer may be for one or more of the trustees to be replaced. First prize of course will always be to achieve this with a voluntary resignation – but what happens if a trustee refuses to resign? Can the majority forcibly remove him/her?

A recent High Court decision dealt with just that question.

3 professionals v the beneficiary’s mother

  • A “valuable property” in Knysna is owned by a trust created for the benefit of a couple’s daughter (11 years old at the time, now 30). There are four trustees appointed by the Master of the High Court (“the Master”) issuing “letters of authority” to two auditors and an attorney (“the professionals”), and to the beneficiary’s mother. The father farms the property through a company and a close corporation. Although no family feud is specifically mentioned in the judgment, it seems clear that the father is in one camp, and the mother and daughter in the other.
  • The trust deed contained this clause – “The office of a TRUSTEE shall be vacated if …. the majority of TRUSTEES request a TRUSTEE to resign.”
  • The trustees fell out in a dispute over the father’s loan account, with the professionals proposing that the trust should pay the father interest on his loan, and the mother objecting on the basis that payment of interest had never been agreed to.
  • This was discussed in a telephonic trustees’ meeting, and resulted in the professionals writing to the mother to say she was removed as trustee for three reasons – “1) all items discussed were either rejected or opposed; 2) she made false allegations against the applicants and 3) she admitted that she did not have sufficient knowledge to fulfil her duties as trustee”. The Master then pointed out to the professionals that they could not resolve to remove the mother, only to request her to resign. They did so in a second letter to the mother.
  • The mother refused to resign and the professionals asked the High Court to order that the mother “has lost her office as trustee”. Their attitude was that they were acting in terms of the trust deed, no reasons for the decision had to be given, and the Master had no option but to issue new letters of authority.
  • The clause itself might seem pretty clear, the professionals clearly believed that they were acting entirely within their mandate and they presumably commenced their litigation with high hopes of success. But it was not to be…
  • The Court, for the reasons we discuss below, held for the mother, who accordingly remains a trustee.

Ambiguity, showing good cause, and ubuntu

The Court’s reasons for its decision contain some important principles that anyone involved in a trust would do well to take note of (with some thoughts on how to deal with each issue in brackets) –

  • The trust’s removal clause, held the Court, was ambiguous when it provided that a request (involving a choice) for resignation shall (peremptory – no choice) lead to vacation of office. The clause, said the Court, “must be interpreted to read that there must be good cause for such a request and that the trustee shall vacate his/her office only in the event of an acceptance of the request”. (Make sure the trust deed is clear and unambiguous).
  • Secondly, an implied term should be read into the clause requiring good cause to be shown – to allow trustees to remove another without producing reasons “would be against public policy and the principles of ubuntu, reasonableness and fairness”. (Make sure you can show fairness and good cause for decisions).
  • Thirdly, the professionals had failed to prove any justification for their action. They could not rely on the clause without giving reasons for their decision and proving that they took their decision “based on the discretion of a good person acting reasonably”. (Make sure you can justify your actions as reasonable).
  • Fourthly, the resolution to request the mother’s resignation “should have been taken on a properly constituted trustees’ meeting and upon proper notice of their intention”. Instead, they took decisions “secretly and without notifying [the mother] in advance. They also “failed to give proper notice in compliance with the provisions of the Trust Act.” (Comply with all procedural formalities).
  • Finally, said the Court, there was no deadlock between the trustees – “Decisions in the interests of the trust and trust beneficiary can be taken by the majority of trustees during a properly convened meeting on condition that sufficient notice of all matters to be considered is given. It is not necessary to remove the first respondent in order to conduct the business of the trust in a lawful manner.” (Be sure that removal is actually necessary).

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