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The Contractarian Basis of the Law of Trusts

By John H Langbein


We are accustomed to think of the trust as a branch of property law. The Restatement (Second) of Trusts defines the trust as \u22a fiduciary relationship with respect to property,\u22 and the codes and treatises say similar things. This way of speaking about the trust omits an important dimension. In truth, the trust is a deal, a bargain about how the trust assets are to be managed and distributed. To be sure, the trust originates exactly where convention says it does, with property. The Restatement says, \u22A trust cannot be created unless there is trust property.\u22 The owner, called the settlor, transfers the trust property to an intermediary, the trustee, to hold it for the beneficiaries. We treat the trustee as the new owner for the purpose of managing the property, while the trust deal strips the trustee of the benefits of ownership. The distinguishing feature of the trust is not the background event, not the transfer of property to the trustee, but the trust deal that defines the powers and responsibilities of the trustee in managing the property. Sometimes the trust deal also confers significant discretion upon the trustee over dispositive provisions, that is, in allocating the beneficial interests among the beneficiaries. The settlor and the trustee may express their deal in detailed terms drafted for the particular trust, or they may be content to adopt the default rules of trust law. Either way, the deal between settlor and trustee is functionally indistinguishable from the modem third-party-beneficiary contract. Trusts are contracts

Topics: Estates and Trusts, Law
Publisher: Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository
Year: 1995
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