Knowledge

Guernsey foundations

24 August 2020

Guernsey foundations are used for a variety of purposes, including private wealth management, succession planning and philanthropy. They are often attractive to people who are unfamiliar or uneasy with trusts and the separation between legal and beneficial ownership that is central to the existence of a trust. They are also appealing to people familiar with civil law foundations as they share many characteristics with those types of foundations.

The Foundations (Guernsey) Law, 2012 (the "Foundations Law") includes a number of unique provisions that offer users of the regime an innovative and flexible structure which may be more suitable to meeting their requirements than a trust or company.

In this note, we provide a general summary of the key features of Guernsey foundations and we explore some of the issues that will be of interest to those considering setting up a Guernsey foundation, including issues of control and confidentiality.

Structure - the basics

  • A Guernsey foundation must have a purpose any may be established for any purpose, except that it cannot carry out any commercial activities (except those necessary for, and ancillary or incidental to, its purpose).
  • A Guernsey foundation may (but is not required to) have beneficiaries.

  • A Guernsey foundation must hold property or assets (which could include movables or immovables, and any share, right or interest in property, including any tangible or intangible property and any debt or thing in action).

  • A Guernsey foundation has legal personality, separate and independent from its founder, and may contract, hold assets (including land) and sue in its own name.

  • There is no separation of legal and beneficial ownership of assets (a Guernsey foundation owns the foundation assets).

  • A Guernsey foundation does not issue shares and has no members.

  • Guernsey foundations are registered at the Guernsey Registry and have a continuous existence until removed from the register.

  • Only a limited amount of information in respect of a Guernsey foundation is available to the public.

  • Guernsey foundations share some similarities with both companies (e.g. legal personality and registered status) and trusts (e.g. no shares and may have beneficiaries) but they are not a hybrid of the two - foundations are distinct legal structures.

Uses of Guernsey foundations

The flexible and innovative nature of Guernsey foundations enable them to be used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • private wealth management (e.g. to hold and manage family assets);
  • holding and controlling interests in private businesses;succession planning;
  • charitable and/or philanthropic purposes;
  • as special purpose vehicles for holding assets in a range of transactions;
  • holding shares in private trust companies (PTCs);
  • as trustees (i.e. private trust foundations (PTFs);
  • as family offices;
  • as investment schemes.

The list is by no means exhaustive.

Creation

Any one or more persons (the "founder") may create a Guernsey foundation by:

  • endowing the foundation with its initial capital;
  • subscribing their name(s) to the constitution of the foundation;and
  • complying with the requirements of the Foundations Law in respect of establishment and registration.

The initial capital may comprise any property and there is no minimum value imposed on the initial capital.

Registration 

Guernsey foundations are registered on the register of foundations (the "Register") maintained by the registrar of foundations (the "Registrar") at the Guernsey Registry. 

In order to register a Guernsey foundation, certain documents and information must be filed with the Registrar, including:

  • the charter (see below);
  • a declaration signed by the founder or the resident agent (see below);
  • the names and addresses of the proposed councillors, guardian (if any) and resident agent (if any); and
  • the address of the registered office of the foundation in Guernsey.

Only a Guernsey licensed fiduciary (i.e. a person licensed by the Guernsey Financial Services Commission (the "GFSC") to carry out regulated fiduciary activities under the Regulation of Fiduciaries, Administration Businesses and Company Directors, etc. (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law, 2000 (as amended) (the "Fiduciaries Law")) may apply to register a Guernsey foundation.

A fee is payable upon registration and an annual renewal fee is payable thereafter.

Full details of the registration procedure and applicable fees can be found on the Guernsey Registry's website: http://guernseyregistry.com.

Regulation

The formation, management and administration of foundations, including acting as a foundation official (i.e. a councillor or a guardian) are regulated activities under the Fiduciaries Law. Accordingly, any person carrying out any of those activities in or from within the Bailiwick of Guernsey, and any Guernsey company carrying out any of those activities, in either case by way of business, must obtain a licence or an exemption from licensing from the GFSC.

The licensing requirements do not apply to any individual or non-Guernsey company carrying out such activities (including acting as a foundation official) outside of Guernsey.

Guernsey foundations are not themselves generally regulated unless they carry out a regulated activity (e.g. the provision of trustee services) or controlled investment business (e.g. they are set up as collective investment schemes). An exemption from regulation may be available.

Legal advice should be obtained to confirm whether a foundation, or any of its foundation officials, need to hold a licence or authorisation (or exemption from licensing) in order to carry out its proposed activity.

Constitution

The constitution of a Guernsey foundation comprises two parts: its charter and its rules. 

The Foundations Law prescribes the information that must be contained in each document. If information required to be in the rules is contained in the charter, that information does not need to be contained in the rules and if all information required to be in the rules is contained in the charter, then the foundation need not have any rules. (A foundation must always have a charter which is submitted with the application for registration but it is not publicly available.)

The Charter

The charter must state the name and purpose of the foundation, contain a description of the initial capital of the foundation, state the duration of the foundation (if it is to subsist for a limited period only) and contain a declaration by the founder (or their resident agent) that the founder wishes the councillors to comply with the terms of the charter.

The charter may also contain any matter that is otherwise required or permitted to be in the rules or that the founder thinks fit.

The charter may be amended only if the charter so provides or the Royal Court of Guernsey so orders or, in a limited number of circumstances, if the Registrar so permits.

As noted above, whilst the charter is filed with the application for registration, it is not made publicly available and remains confidential. It may be disclosed but only in limited circumstances, e.g. as part of a criminal investigation.

The Rules

The rules must prescribe the functions of the council, detail the procedures for the appointment, resignation and removal of councillors and any guardian and, if the councillors or guardian are to be remunerated, make such provision as the founder thinks fit in respect of remuneration.

The rules may also deal with various administrative matters including the manner in which the property of the foundation may be distributed, accumulated or applied, the endowment of further property upon the foundation, the addition or removal of beneficiaries, the appointment and removal of foundation officials, investment decisions, use of the foundation's assets, the termination of a beneficiary's interests and provision for a default recipient (see below). In addition, the rules can contain any other matter that the founder thinks fit.

The rules may be amended only if the constitution so provides or an application is made to the Royal Court of Guernsey by or on behalf of the founder or a foundation official to rectify any error, defect or omission in the rules.

The Founder

A Guernsey foundation is created by one or more founders and there are no restrictions in the Foundations Law as to who can be a founder.

Once a Guernsey foundation has been created, the founder does not have any interest in it by virtue only of endowing it with its initial capital or further property. However, the founder may be a councillor or a guardian (but not both at the same time), and/or a beneficiary.

Whilst the founder provides the initial capital, further property may be endowed by any person (not necessarily the founder) if permitted by the constitution.

The Council

A Guernsey foundation is managed by its council which must comprise at least two councillors unless its constitution provides otherwise.

Any person, including the founder or a body corporate, may be appointed as a councillor (although a councillor may not also be a guardian). The founder is therefore free to select who will be responsible for the management and administration of the foundation (for example, a trusted adviser and/or a family member may be appointed as councillors).

Any person who is to be a councillor (or a guardian) must be a fit and proper person to hold that position (and the Foundations Law provides guidance for determining whether a person is fit and proper).

The councillors have a duty to the foundation to act in good faith in the exercise of their functions. They must execute and administer the foundation and must exercise their functions under it in accordance with the provisions of the Foundations Law and, subject to those provisions, in accordance with the terms of the constitution and only in advancement of the purpose of the foundation.

The Guardian

If a foundation has a purpose with no beneficiaries or has any disenfranchised beneficiaries (see below) the foundation must have a guardian in relation to the purpose or the disenfranchised beneficiaries. Otherwise, if the charter so permits, a foundation may have a guardian but is not obliged to.

Either the founder or a body corporate may be appointed as a guardian but this is not a requirement. The guardian may not also be a councillor.

The guardian has a duty to the founder and the beneficiaries to act in good faith and en bon père de famille to enforce the constitution and the purpose and in the exercise of their functions. In the exercise of their duty, a guardian may bring an action against the council unless the constitution provides otherwise.

Resident agent

A Guernsey foundation must have a resident agent who can either be (i) an individual, resident in Guernsey, who is a foundation official (i.e. a councillor or guardian), or (ii) a Guernsey licensed fiduciary.

This requirement does not apply to a foundation that is either an open-ended investment scheme or a closed-ended investment scheme within the meaning of the Protection of Investors (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law, 1987 (as amended).

The first resident agent must take reasonable steps to ascertain the identity of the beneficial owners in relation to the foundation (if any) and provide certain information to the Registrar of Beneficial Ownership in Guernsey before the foundation is registered. The resident agent also has ongoing duties to notify the Registrar of certain information regarding notices served on the beneficiaries or beneficial owners in relation to a foundation under the Beneficial Ownership of Legal Persons (Guernsey) Law, 2017.

Beneficiaries

A Guernsey foundation may or may not have beneficiaries, i.e. persons who may benefit from the foundation. A beneficiary must be identified in the constitution by name or their identity must be ascertainable from the terms of the constitution by reference to a class or a relationship to another person (e.g. the children of the founder).

The constitution may provide for the addition or removal of a person as a beneficiary or for the exclusion from benefit of a beneficiary either revocably or irrevocably.

A founder or foundation official may also be a beneficiary.

Uniquely, the constitution of a Guernsey foundation may differentiate between enfranchised beneficiaries and/or disenfranchised beneficiaries:

  • Enfranchised beneficiaries have considerable rights. They are entitled to: (i) copies of the constitution of the foundation, (ii) disclosure of records and accounts of the foundation on written request to the council and (iii) make any application to the Royal Court of Guernsey to request an order to prohibit a change to the purpose of the foundation or the winding up of the foundation.
  • Disenfranchised beneficiaries are not entitled to the above, unless the terms of the constitution provide otherwise. The constitution may provide for a disenfranchised beneficiary to become enfranchised and vice versa. This gives the founder a considerable amount of flexibility in structuring the foundation, for example the constitution can distinguish between family members so that only those that meet certain conditions (in terms of age or involvement in the family business, for instance) are enfranchised beneficiaries.

As noted above, where a foundation has disenfranchised beneficiaries, the foundation must have a guardian.

Control

There are a number of ways in which the founder can retain control in respect of the foundation and its assets, notwithstanding that they have divested themself of property endowed upon the foundation. As noted above, the founder can select the councillors and, where applicable, the guardian. The founder can also control the flow of information to beneficiaries by differentiating between enfranchised beneficiaries and disenfranchised beneficiaries. 

In addition, the founder can reserve to themself limited powers under the constitution provided certain requirements are met. The founder can reserve a power to amend, revoke or vary the terms of the constitution or (subject to certain limitations) the purpose of the foundation in whole or in part and they can reserve a power to terminate the foundation. In each case the reservation of powers must be set out in full in the charter and the powers may only be reserved during the founder's life (if the founder is a natural person) or for a period not exceeding 50 years from the date of establishment of the foundation (if the founder is a legal person such as a company). 

Confidentiality

Only limited information in respect of a Guernsey foundation is publicly available. The purpose of the foundation and the administrative provisions of the foundation are not made available to the public.

Further, the founder can restrict the information that is provided to beneficiaries by making them disenfranchised beneficiaries or by including provisions in the constitution to make an enfranchised beneficiary become a disenfranchised beneficiary in prescribed circumstances.

Winding-up and termination

A Guernsey foundation must be wound-up by the council upon the occurrence of any of the winding-up events specified in the Foundations Law, including:

  • the expiry of its duration (if it is limited in duration);
  • the happening of any event specified in the constitution;
  • the foundation no longer having any property or assets;
  • bankruptcy;
  • failure of the purpose of the foundation; or
  • by order of the Royal Court of Guernsey (which may appoint one or more liquidators).

Upon the winding-up of a Guernsey foundation, the assets are distributed first to third party creditors, secondly to any foundation officials, founder, beneficiaries and guardian who are creditors and, finally, subject to the provisions of the constitution, to the person named as the default recipient in the constitution.

Once the foundation has been wound-up it is terminated by an application being made to the Registrar for its removal from the Register. The foundation is terminated on the date of its removal from the Register following which it no longer exists or has legal personality.

Migration (in and out)

An overseas foundation (i.e. a foundation with legal personality established under the law of any place outside of Guernsey) may apply to the Registrar to be registered as a Guernsey foundation provided that it is authorised to do so by local law, it complies with any applicable local legal requirements and it is not bankrupt or being wound up (or similar).

It is also possible for a Guernsey foundation, if permitted under its constitution, to apply to the Registrar to be removed from the Register for the purposes of becoming established as a foundation with legal personality under the law of a place outside of Guernsey.

Tax

Guernsey foundations are taxed in the same way as Guernsey companies, i.e. they are taxed at the standard company rate of 0% on income save for income derived from certain sources, notably income from a regulated business or the ownership of lands and buildings in Guernsey.

In conclusion - why use a Guernsey foundation

The Guernsey foundation is a flexible and innovative structure which can be utilised for a variety of purposes and its constitution can be tailored to meet the founder's particular requirements. The Guernsey foundation is sufficiently similar to foundations found in civil law and other common law jurisdictions to be easily recognisable to those familiar with foundations but different enough to offer clients a unique structure (the distinction between enfranchised and disenfranchised beneficiaries is an original concept not found elsewhere).

Guernsey is a well-regulated, reputable and politically stable jurisdiction. It is recognised internationally as having an experienced and knowledgeable body of private wealth practitioners, including fiduciary service providers, lawyers and accountants. These factors, and the flexibility and accessibility of the Foundations Law, is attractive to clients and their advisers and the Guernsey foundation provides another option to consider when determining the type of structure and the jurisdiction which will be most suited to their particular requirements.