Many legal minds making NZ LAW work

We are an association of independent legal practices, proactively sharing ideas and expertise for the benefit of our clients.

Trustees’ decisions

Published: 17th August 2020

Author: Kimberly Lawrence, Greg Kelly Law Ltd

Published in: Trust eSpeaking

Decision-making can be affected by bias
In a recent case (1), trustees’ decision-making came under scrutiny from the High Court.

Lara Unkovich was a young teenager when her grandfather died in 2016, leaving her a share of his estate. Her share was worth around $65,000. Under his will Lara would not receive the funds until she was 21 years old. The trustees, however, had the power to make payments towards her ‘maintenance, education, advancement or benefit.’ The trustees were her aunt Margaret and a lawyer.

Request for beneficiary to be paid out early
In October 2016, Lara’s mother wrote to Margaret about Lara’s share of the estate. She asked that Lara’s share be immediately paid out on the basis that Lara needed it for her education in Australia. Lara’s mother said that this Australian education would provide Lara with the best opportunity to improve her national tennis ranking and then possibly gain a scholarship to a US university.

The trustees refused. In September 2017, Lara’s parents sent a detailed request to the trustees explaining the nature and the purpose of the request for funds.

Arguments continued for some time about the proposal to fund Lara’s education in Australia. The trustees were critical of the funds being used when Lara was only 16 years old and believed the chances of her becoming a professional tennis player were slim.

Lara’s parents thought that the trustees were mistaken in their understanding of the request for funds; they advised the trustees that because of Lara’s stellar academic record and tennis ability, she was on track to obtain a fully-funded tennis scholarship to a US university, which was very valuable. Their argument was that Lara’s future success as a professional tennis player was irrelevant; her tennis aptitude and academic results had opened up educational opportunities. To take advantage of these, Lara needed to continue her tennis coaching and education in Australia.

High Court decision
Eventually the matter came before the High Court, which found that:
• The trustees were mistaken as to the nature and purpose of the request for funds – being Lara’s education – for which tennis was the means but not necessarily the end
• The trustees were working under an unsupported assumption that Lara’s parents were financially unstable and imprudent, and
• Because the trustees’ mistakes (above) were material, the trustees had breached their fiduciary duty in failing to give proper consideration as to whether advancing the trust funds to Lara’s parents would be for Lara’s maintenance, education, advancement or benefit.

An interesting feature of this case is that Margaret had legal advice throughout and she continually relied on it. The court found that the advice appeared to have relied on Margaret’s instructions that, among other things, Lara’s parents were financially imprudent. The court found that while Margaret did not have a duty to be right when she made trustee decisions, she did have a duty to make proper enquiries and give fair consideration to the matter, which she failed to do.

Issues around costs
Costs are also an interesting feature of this case. Margaret was not entitled to reimbursement from the trust fund for the legal costs she had incurred. (While this may seem fair in the case of a smaller trust fund for Lara’s benefit, and given that Lara was successful, trustees are entitled to be paid their costs reasonably incurred in the course of the trust administration.) Margaret was also ordered to pay court costs to Lara in relation to part of the litigation. The judgment does not consider the other trustee’s legal fees or liability for costs.

Lessons to be learned by trustees
This case is a good illustration of the difficulties that trustees can face, particularly in family trust situations where trustees may have personal knowledge or biases that affect their decision-making. It is not uncommon for one trustee to have concerns about a beneficiary’s financial ability, particularly when they are closely related, but trustees need to ensure that they are giving fair consideration to the beneficiary in question.

Professional trustees should also take care to make their own inquiries to verify information about beneficiaries. If trustees do not have sufficient evidence to rely on to confirm their unease, they may face their decisions being overturned and then possibly having to pay court costs.

(1) Unkovich v Clapham [2020] NZHC 952.

Please contact the author for any questions regarding this article

Related Articles

  • Auckland
  • Bay of Plenty
  • Canterbury
  • Coromandel
  • Gisborne
  • Hawke's Bay
  • Kapiti Coast
  • Manawatu - Wanganui
  • Marlborough
  • Nelson
  • Northland
  • Otago
  • Southland
  • Taranaki
  • Waikato
  • Wairarapa
  • Wellington
  • West Coast

Daniel Overton & Goulding

We offer a wide range of legal services and advice to our clients who come to us with a number of different legal issues. In all instances we strive to get our clients the best advice and outcome. Come to our experienced and knowledgeable team about any legal issue and if we cannot find the answer we will be able to get you the right expert who will get you the right advice, and get you the best result. This is a vital part of our client care.

Region: Auckland

Phone: 09 6222 222

Sandford & Partners Lawyers

We are a medium sized Rotorua law firm practicing in areas of business and property law, public law and personal legal services.

We are professionals who listen, who seek to understand your needs, and give practical and usable advice. We thrive on the challenge of providing excellent legal work and aim to give you the highest level of service. For us, working for you means dealing with the little details as well as the big picture.

Region: Bay of Plenty

Phone: 07 348 6039

Corcoran French

Corcoran French is a firm of Christchurch and North Canterbury lawyers with over 120 years experience in providing legal services to Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region. We have offices in Christchurch City and Kaiapoi. We can also meet you at shared offices at Akaroa.

We welcome new clients and are committed to building strong long-term relationships that are rewarding for our clients.

Region: Canterbury

Phone: 03 379 4660

Purnell Lawyers

There is nothing as inevitable as change. Since opening for business early last century, we at Purnell Lawyers have seen many changes both in name and in the people who have made up the members of our team. We have been privileged to have served the public throughout all of these times. 

We are confident that we will continue to bring top quality legal services to our clients well into the future.

Region: Coromandel

Phone: 07 868 8680

Woodward Chrisp

At Woodward Chrisp we strive to meet the needs of our clients by providing a wide range of high quality legal services within a supportive and collaborative environment.

Woodward Chrisp is the amalgamation of two long established Gisborne legal firms: Woodward Iles & Co and Chrisp and Chrisp. Today’s partners are Ross Revington, Adam Simperingham, Jeff Allen and Ellie FitzGerald.

Region: Gisborne

Phone: 06 869 0900

NZ LAW Limited

NZ LAW Limited is an association of independent legal practices with member firms located throughout New Zealand. There are currently 54 member firms practising in a wide range of legal disciplines ranging from business law, home buying and selling, immigration law and intellectual property to aviation law and viticulture.

The group was established in 1992 when about five law firms met in Auckland to find a way to benefit their clients by replicating the conviviality and the sharing of ideas and expertise that occurs in larger law firms, but still be able to retain client confidentiality and their own independence.

Region: Hawke's Bay

Phone: 06 835 5299

BMC Lawyers

BMC lawyers has built a reputation for providing quality service and delivering real results. Our strength is our broad-ranging legal experience that gives us the ability to match clients with the right mix of legal skills for their particular needs.

Our legal professionals are passionate about what they do and work alongside a talented team of support and administration staff to make a real positive difference to our clients.”

Region: Kapiti Coast

Phone: 04 296 1105

CS Law

Looking after you, your family, and the small print.

Region: Manawatu - Wanganui

Phone: 06 368 9239

Wain & Naysmith

Based in Blenheim, Wain & Naysmith Lawyers is a full service law firm, and a powerhouse for property, family and business law.

We pride ourselves in providing clear and cost effective legal solutions and practical advice for you, your family and your business.

Region: Marlborough

Phone: 03 520 6103

Knapps Lawyers

As a firm, we promise to look after you and treat you in a manner that we would expect to be treated by a professional services provider; we promise to use every available legal remedy available to us to resolve your issue and to do what you ask us to do in a timely manner.

We will hold in strict confidence all information that we acquire through our work for you and which concerns your business or personal information.  The only exceptions are where you authorise us to disclose such information or where we must do so by law.

Region: Nelson

Phone: 03 544 7888

Law North Limited

We pride ourselves on being a "general store" for most legal issues but also have several in-house experts in specialised areas including trusts, relationship property, business and property law.  No matter what your issue is - whether you are looking for trusted legal advisers to steer you through life, or you have a one-off problem to sort out - we would be pleased to help.

Law North Ltd provides a broad range of legal services across the Far North district from our base in Kerikeri.   We have operated in the area for over 100 years and have a long-standing history of providing legal services to a diverse client base, including businesses and private clients.   Our directors and their families have been part of the Bay of Islands community for several generations and remain committed to the area and its people.  We often call upon strong local knowledge to resolve issues for clients whilst remaining vigilant about client confidentiality.

Region: Northland

Phone: 09 407 7099

Wilkinson Rodgers Lawyers

Our specialists work together to provide clients with the full range of advice they need to achieve their desired results. If you're looking for specialist knowledge and advice, are a company or individual we can help you by making it easier for you to achieve your objectives.

Our area of expertise include, but not limited to;

  • Commercial
  • Community
  • Family Law
  • Home, Asset & Employment
  • Wills & Estates

Region: Otago

Phone: 03 477 9844

Sheddan Pritchard Law Ltd

Incorporating traditional values and a fresh perspective, Sheddan Pritchard Law is here to assist you with all your legal needs. 

Our friendly and team-driven approach underpins our firm’s values, recognising the importance of putting people first and allows us to connect and nurture professional relationships with new and existing clients within our local community of Gore, as well as throughout New Zealand and extending overseas.

Region: Southland

Phone: 03 209 0030

Welsh McCarthy

Welsh McCarthy practises in Hawera, South Taranaki. Predominant industries in the South Taranaki district are dairy farming, oil and gas. The South Taranaki area also has the largest one-site multi product milk processing facility in the world

We deal with company and commercial transactions, commercial and family law, farm and residential sales and purchases, estate planning and family and charitable trusts. A large part of the firm also deals in the area of family law.

Region: Taranaki

Phone: 06 278 5039

Allen Needham & Co Ltd

Sir Stephen Allen, founder of the firm, was admitted to the bar on the 7th of December 1906 and subsequently set up practice in the building illustrated below on the present site of our offices at 52 Canada Street, Morrinsville on the 1st of January 1907.

Mr Arthur Needham was admitted to the bar on the 1st of March 1923 and Mr R. B. Morton on the 24th of November 1924. They joined Sir Stephen in partnership under the name of Allen, Needham & Morton.

The firm was subsequently called Allen, Needham, Sanford & Lang when the partners of the firm were John Needham (son of Arthur Needham, and father of Rod Needham, a present partner), Howard Sanford, Fred Lang and Graeme Ashmore.

Graeme Ashmore left the firm in 1972 and Howard Sanford retired as a partner in 1974 when Greg McDonnell became a partner with John Needham and Fred Lang.

The firm changed its name to Allen, Needham & Co. in 1986 when new partners Rod Needham and Bob Craven joined the firm. In December 2010 the firm became an incorporated company.

Region: Waikato

Phone: 07 889 5062

Gawith Burridge

Gawith Burridge traces its history back to 1875 when Charles Gawith first set up his practice. Since then the firm has undergone many changes, including a merger between Gawith & Co and Burridge & Co in 1998 to form our current practice.

Our firm draws on the breadth of expertise available from some of the region’s most senior legal practitioners, as well as the skills of those who have moved here from larger corporate environments.

As a result, we provide clients with a comprehensive range of legal services right here in the Wairarapa. We can provide you with legal assistance whether you are an individual or a company, with everything from setting up a Will to selling your farming business. 

Region: Wairarapa

Phone: 06 370 0000

Greg Kelly Law Ltd

Greg Kelly Law Limited is a boutique Wellington law firm specialising in trust and elder law. Our practice areas are wills, estates and trusts.

We act for private and institutional clients establishing and administering trusts, wills and estates. We also provide quality advice to legal and accounting firms in New Zealand and overseas. In particular, we can assist with legal opinions, obtaining and resealing probate, and estate and trust litigation.

Region: Wellington

Phone: 04 499 5193

Hannan & Seddon

The Law Firm of Hannan & Seddon dates back to September 1867.

The firm's offices were in Werita Street from 1867 until 1982 when the firm moved to Tarapuhi Street and then to its current spacious premises at 61 Guinness Street in 1998.

The name Hannan comes from Mr Michael Hannan whose son John Hannan (Jack) joined the firm in 1908. Jack Hannan remained in partnership until he passed away in 1974 at the age of 90!

The name Seddon comes from Mr T E Y Seddon (son of Premier Richard John Seddon from Kumara) who joined the firm in the 1920's. The other prominent Solicitor at Hannan & Seddon was Cyril McGinley who joined the firm in the late 1920’s and retired as a Consultant in 1997 aged 87.

Currently we have two Partners within our firm. Tony Sullivan who has been with us for 29 years and Colin Smith, 26 years. The firm also has two long serving Legal Executives Elaine Knowles and Beverley Walsh.  

Region: West Coast

Phone: 03 768 4169

All the information published on this website, or in any article herein is true and accurate to the best of the authors' knowledge. Information on this site should not be a substitute for legal advice. No liability is assumed by NZ LAW Limited, or individual NZ LAW member firms for losses suffered by any person or organisation relying directly or indirectly on information published on this site. Views expressed in any article are the views of the authors individually and do not necessarily reflect the view of NZ LAW or their member firms. Information appearing on this site may only be reproduced with prior approval from NZ LAW Limited Head Office, and credit being given to the source. © NZ LAW Limited