Latin American families: Planning for a smooth transmission of Cayman shares

Read our article in the Cayman Financial Review Magazine, eversion 


It is not uncommon for individuals domiciled in Latin America to own shares in a Cayman Islands company, whether for tax planning purposes, diversification of investments or otherwise.   

A question that is increasingly posed by such individuals is the following: What happens when I die, and, in particular, what system of laws will apply to the succession of those shares?

foreign element provisions of Cayman’s Trusts Law

One option is to
settle the shares on a Cayman Islands trust during the individual’s lifetime.
Although this is one of the more costly alternatives, settling the shares on a
Cayman trust does avoid the need to obtain a grant of probate or other grant of
representation in order to distribute the shares held in the trust fund. In
addition to the other advantages that a trust offers (asset protection,
preservation of wealth by avoiding fragmentation of assets, etc), a trust also
avoids the application of forced heirship rules, which are all too common in
Latin American countries. When they apply, these rules dictate the persons to
whom, and the proportions in which, a settlor’s estate will devolve. 

Part VII of the
Cayman Islands Trusts Law contains what are commonly referred to as the “trusts
foreign element provisions”. These provisions exclude the application of
foreign law in matters relating to Cayman trusts, unless the trust deed
otherwise specifies, and prevent recognition and enforcement of judgments in
foreign proceedings that purport to vary Cayman trusts for the purposes of
enforcing heirship rights and rights arising out of personal relationships with
the settlor. 

Section 90 of the
Trusts Law provides that all questions arising in regard to a trust that is
governed by Cayman Islands law, or questions in regard to: 

(i)  the
capacity of any settlor; 

(ii)  the
validity of the trust or disposition or the interpretation or effect thereof; 

(iii)  the
administration of the trust (whether conducted in Cayman or elsewhere)
including questions as to the powers, obligations, liabilities and rights of
trustees and their appointment and removal; or  

(iv)  the
existence and extent of powers, conferred or retained, including powers of
variation or revocation of the trust and powers of appointment, and the validity
of any exercise thereof,are to be determined
according to the laws of the Cayman Islands, without reference to the laws of
any other jurisdictions with which the trust may be connected. The “trusts
foreign element provisions” specify that these non-recognition provisions take
effect subject to any express contrary term of the trust; they also provide
that they do not apply in certain specified situations, such as foreign laws
prescribing generally (without reference to the existence or terms of the trust)
the formalities for the disposition of property1.  

Section 92 precludes
the recognition of heirship rights conferred by foreign law that affect the
ownership of immovable property in the Cayman Islands, or moveable property
“wherever situate”. 

 Sections 91 and 93 of the Trusts Law provide
that a foreign judgment shall not be recognised, enforced or give rise to any
estoppel insofar as it purports to vary or set aside a trust validly created
under the Trusts Law or deprive the trustee or any beneficiary of any rights,
where the judgment arises out of heirship rights or a personal relationship to
the settlor. By section 87 of the Trusts Law, a personal relationship includes
a marriage or former marriage.  

There are three
types of foreign orders that could potentially affect a Cayman trust: 

(i)   Those
that purport to affect the validity of the trust, or that seek to vary it; 

(ii)  Those
that purport to affect the settlor or the trustee of the trust themselves
personally – ordering them to exercise a power or behave in a certain way; and 

(iii)  Those
that only take account of the existence, value and rights under the trust
without impacting the trust itself. 

In the recent case
of Re B Trust2, the
Grand Court of the Cayman Islands confirmed that the effect of the statutory
provisions contained in sections 90 to 93 of the Trusts Law is that an order
made in foreign matrimonial proceedings involving the settlor that purport to
vary a Cayman trust will not be recognised or enforced in the Cayman Islands
even if a trustee were to submit to the foreign court’s jurisdiction. In this
case the court considered whether an order made in Hong Kong matrimonial
ancillary relief proceedings to vary a Cayman trust would be recognisable or
enforced in Cayman. The judge stated: 

“[a]n order of the
Hong Kong court purporting to effect a variation of the trust, whether in
matrimonial proceedings or otherwise, cannot be recognised by the trustee. That
is so even if the trustee were to attorn to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong
Court. A trust in the Cayman Islands can only be varied in accordance with the
Law of the Cayman Islands and only by a court of the Cayman Islands. These
overarching rules are provided for expressly in the Trusts Law (2009 Revision),
in sections 90, 91 and 93…”  

However, this is not
to say that the decision of a foreign court will have no effect at all. The
Court in Re B Trust noted that if a trustee had opportunity to exercise its
discretion in a manner that would assist in the resolution of a dispute, while
maintaining an even-handed approach to all beneficiaries, the trustee would no
doubt give respectful consideration to the views of the foreign court, and the
foreign variation order would be a material factor for the trustee to take into
consideration when exercising its discretion. 

If such an order
were made by a foreign court, which provided that the trustee’s discretion
ought to be exercised in a certain way, a trustee would generally be
well-advised to seek the directions from the Grand Court as to whether to
exercise its discretion to comply with such an order. 

although foreign judgments concerning heirship and matrimonial rights that
purport to vary a Cayman trust will not be recognised or enforced by the Cayman
court, foreign judgments against, for example, the settlor personally,
directing him to exercise a power in a certain way for the benefit of a
judgment creditor (where the settlor has reserved such power), may be enforced
by the Cayman courts to ensure that the trust is not used as a vehicle of

statutory provisions do not apply to wills

Another option for a
foreign domiciliary who owns shares in a Cayman company is for that individual
to make a will dealing alone with those shares and any other property that the
individual owns in the Cayman Islands. Such a will could be, but does not have
to be, made complementary to a will dealing with that individual’s assets
elsewhere in the world. 

The position for
such a Cayman will contrasts starkly with a Cayman trust, as the statutory
provisions referred to above expressly do not apply to validate any
testamentary trust or disposition that is invalid according to the laws of the
testator’s domicile3

So far as wills of
personal estate are concerned (including shares in a Cayman company), the law
of the testator’s domicile is of paramount importance. To illustrate why, let
us assume you are a foreign domiciliary who has died leaving a will dealing
with shares in a Cayman company. 

Under Cayman Islands
law, the rights (if any) held by members of your family (and the like) to
proportions of your personal estate (known as essential validity) are governed
by the law of your domicile at the date of your death. This is so even if the
will deals only with personal property in the Cayman Islands and is governed by
Cayman law. Accordingly, while generally your shares in the Cayman company will
be distributed in accordance with your wishes as expressed in such a will,
being movable property, that will will be subject to any overriding law of succession
of your domicile at the time of your death. For instance, if you are domiciled
in Brazil and continue to be domiciled in Brazil at the time of your death, the
dispositions in the will would have to be valid according to Brazil’s forced
heirship rules. Incidentally, a similar analysis would apply if you died
intestate (without leaving a will). 

The laws of the
country of your domicile at death will also determine whether or not your will
has been properly executed. This is known as formal validity. In England, this
is regulated by the Wills Act 1963, which gives effect to the Hague Convention
on the Formal Validity of Wills 1961. The policy behind the Convention is to
uphold the formal validity of a will wherever possible; the Convention and the
English Act treat a will as properly executed if it is executed in accordance
with any of four legal systems, including the law of the country where the will
is executed. The Wills Law of the Cayman Islands does not have an equivalent
provision to the provision in the English Wills Act 1963 that gives effect to
the Convention. Instead, based on the common law conflict of law rules dealing
with succession under English common law, Cayman law defers to the domestic law
of the country of last domicile or to the domestic law of any system of law
referred to by the conflict rules of that law. It has not yet been decided
whether the relevant domicile is at the time of the making of the will or at
the time of death. Consequently, when executing a Cayman Islands will over
Cayman assets, care needs to be given to which law will govern how the will
should be signed, the number and capacity of the witnesses, whether it should
be registered with any authority in order to be valid, and so on. This also
needs to be reviewed if you change your domicile after the will has been

Having said that,
there is value in preparing a Cayman will to dispose of personal assets, such
as shares, held in the Cayman Islands where the intention is to distribute such
assets in accordance with any applicable forced heirship rules in your
domicile. The benefits of such a will are these: it will be in English and
subject to a separate probate application in the Cayman Islands, thereby making
it more expedient to obtain a grant of probate affecting those assets than
having your heirs having to start the process in your country of domicile; and,
additionally, such a will will clearly set forth the list of persons with
authority to represent your estate in the Cayman Islands following your death –
this is essential to obtain a grant of representation in the Cayman Islands.
Although it is possible to “re-seal” a foreign will, the process may give rise
to difficulties, not least due to the need to translate documents into English
for purposes of the Cayman probate, but also due to the fact that in certain
Latin American countries, such as Brazil, the system of law may not provide any
equivalent to a grant of representation. 


Holding shares in a
Cayman company will not in itself protect a foreign domiciliary holder from the
effects of the laws in his home country upon death. Thought must be given to
the succession which, in the Cayman Islands, is not without its pitfalls.
Options include trust structures and wills, which we have touched on briefly in
this article, but joint tenancy structures and life governing director share
structures should be explored also. In all cases it will be important to obtain
legal advice from professional advisors in your country of residence as well as
in the Cayman Islands to ensure that your succession planning is appropriate to
your circumstances and achieves your stated objectives. 


1 See s.90(i) to (vi) of the Trusts Law
2 November 2010, unreported, in which Ogier acted for the trustee
3 Section 90(vi) of the Trusts Law

Latin American