Trust to trust: The role and responsibilities of the trust auditor/accountant
JOHANNESBURG - Often estate planners and trustees are of the views that trust information is to be kept secret and that they are under no obligation to account to beneficiaries and others.
Many trustees are not aware of their fiduciary duties and responsibilities and often “silent” trustees do not participate in the administration of trusts. A combination of these factors result in inadequate record keeping for trusts.
Upon the registration of a trust, and for the life of a trust, the Master of the High Court requires the appointment of either an auditor or accountant. It is not a requirement in terms of the Trust Property Control Act that a trust’s accounts are audited.
Trustees need to follow requirements stipulated in the trust instrument regarding the appointment of an auditor or accountant. Failing to do so may indicate that they have failed to observe the trust deed. It is recommended that the trust deed be clear about the need for the appointment of an auditor or an independent accountant.
If the trust deed allows for that, trustees often appoint accountants to compile financial statements for the trust. It is clear from this article that it is not as simple as only compiling financial statements, similar to entities such as close corporations or companies; much more is required from the accountant.
Even though the services of an accountant can be used for the compilation of financial statements, the onus is however on the trustees, not the accountant or auditor, to clearly identify and record trust property (in terms of Section 11 of the Trust Property Control Act) and to deliver to the Master of the High Court any trust documents and records when requested to do so to the satisfaction of the Master. The trustees will be required to provide any relevant book, record, account or document, and honestly and truthfully answer any relevant questions by the Master of the High Court, to the Master’s satisfaction, in terms of the Master’s statutory right to trust information (Section 16 of the Trust Property Control Act).
The Master may, if he or she deems it necessary, cause an investigation to be carried out by some fit and proper person appointed by him or her into the trustee's administration and disposal of trust property.
Due to the fact that the South African Revenue Service (“SARS”) views a trust as a separate legal entity for which separate Income Tax returns and Provisional Income Tax returns are required to be submitted, trustees have to keep proper records of the trust’s affairs to enable them to submit these returns and to answer any SARS queries – whether an audit is required in terms of the trust deed or not.
The beneficiaries of a trust have a common law right to request the appointment of an auditor for the trust, regardless whether the trust deed requires the appointment of an accountant, rather than an auditor. In the Doyle v Board of Executors case of 1999 it was held that beneficiaries are entitled to information concerning the management and administration of trust assets, even in a discretionary trust. The Court held that the trustees have a duty to provide full trust administration reports and accounting records, dating back to the time a discretionary trust had been established, to trust beneficiaries, and even to contingent beneficiaries born later. The judge found that, as a result of the above, a beneficiary is entitled to request and receive from the trustees full, true and proper accounting records of the trust, supported by vouchers. The beneficiaries would therefore be entitled to some assurance that the information provided would be reliable, as confirmed by an audit opinion. So even if the trust deed stipulates that an auditor does not have to be appointed for the trust, it would be subject to all laws, both statute and common law, and the beneficiaries are therefore entitled to demand an audit of the trust’s books to get such assurance.
If the trust’s books are however audited as required in terms of the trust deed, Section 15 of the Trust Property Control Act requires from the auditor to firstly report any material irregularity to the board of trustees, and if the irregularity is not rectified to the satisfaction of the auditor within one month, then the auditor should report it in writing to the Master of the High Court.
Some trustees, auditors and accountants are not aware that an auditor’s/accountant’s appointment has to be formally lodged with the Master of the High Court. The auditor/accountant will have to submit a J405 (Undertaking By Auditor/Accountant) form with the Master of the High Court, whereby such auditor/accountant undertakes to act as auditor/accountant of the trust, before he, she or it can act as such. In practice, often trustees are not even aware who the auditors/accountants on record with the Master of the High Court are.
Regardless of whether an auditor or accountant is appointed (no distinction is drawn by the Master of the High Court between an auditor and accountant), such auditor or accountant has to undertake the following to the Master of the High Court on the J405 Master form:
“I am qualified to act as Auditor/Accountant of the above Trust and undertake to advise the Master:
• Should I cease to act in the above Trust
• The name of the new Auditor/Accountant should I be aware thereof
• Should there be any changes in the capital/income beneficiaries in this trust
• Should the Trust not have been administered in accordance with the terms and conditions of the trust deed
• Of any substantial addition, to the capital and assets of the trust and value thereof”
Accountants who compile financial statements for trusts, without auditing it, should therefore not assume they can just do so without any further responsibility, in terms of typical disclaimers they include in the Accounting Officer’s Reports in the financial statements – like for companies or close corporations. These undertakings stipulated in the J405 are specific to trusts and are onerous. In practice, few accountants comply with any of these undertakings and expose themselves to undue risk.
Due to the unique, complex nature of trusts, accounting bodies recommend that only qualified persons with specialisation in the administration of trusts should assist trustees to report on the financial affairs of trusts.
Phia van der Spuy is a registered Fiduciary Practitioner of South Africa®, a Master Tax Practitioner (SA)™, a Trust and Estate Practitioner (TEP) and the founder of Trusteeze®, a professional trust practitioner.