What is a discretionary trust, and when would you use one?

woman looking thoughtful

A discretionary trust means trustees have the discretion to decide who benefits from the trust, from a list of potential beneficiaries.

They can also decide when payments are to be made, how much, and how often.

Discretionary trusts are very flexible and can have many uses. For example you might not know how much your beneficiaries might need in the future, so you can leave that responsibility to the trustees.

Personal injury trusts

Another good use for a discretionary trust is a personal injury trust, which can be set up by, or on behalf of, someone who has received compensation from a personal injury claim so that they don’t lose eligibility for their benefits.

Protecting other members of your family

Before 2007, when the law changed, it was common for spouses to make wills leaving the inheritance tax allowance (currently £325,000) to a nil-rate band discretionary trust, so the surviving spouse or civil partner could make use of their allowance after the first spouse died.

While this is no longer necessary, thanks to the transferable inheritance tax allowance between spouses or civil partners, it is useful to include such a trust in your will to provide for other members of the family. If there are assets which are likely to increase in value at a faster rate than the inheritance tax allowance, these could be included in the trust to mitigate inheritance tax on the estate of the surviving spouse/civil partner.

The main disadvantage of a discretionary trust is that any income which is produced from trust assets is taxed at a higher rate of income tax (currently 45%); however, beneficiaries who are basic rate tax payers can claim a tax rebate.

Taxes on trusts

If the value of the trust exceeds the inheritance tax allowance, there may be inheritance tax to pay when any assets are transferred to the beneficiaries (exit charge) and on each ten-year anniversary of the start of the trust (principal charge). The calculations for the exit charge and principal charge are complex, but the rate of tax is lower than the rate of inheritance tax and the maximum rate of tax payable is 6%. See Can I really use a trust to avoid inheritance tax? for more information.

Discretionary trusts are often set up by a will, but they can also be set up during someone’s lifetime. If the gift into trust is under £325,000 and no other gifts have been made, there will be no immediate lifetime inheritance tax charge.

It is worth noting that the inheritance tax residence nil-rate band, which came in to effect in April 2017, cannot be claimed if the deceased’s residence passes into a discretionary trust. This is because it must pass to direct descendants and cannot pass into trust (see What is the Residence Nil-Rate Band? for more information). However discretionary trusts are still useful tools to consider as part of estate and trust planning.

Tina Wong TEP is a Solicitor at Pothecary Witham Weld in London


An article of this kind can never provide a complete guide to the law in these areas, which may be subject to change from time to time. The opinions and suggestions made within this article should not be interpreted as specific advice in relation to any particular individual or individuals. Neither STEP, the article author or their firm accept responsibility for any loss occasioned by someone acting or refraining to act on the basis of the opinions and suggestions contained in this article. More