In civil law jurisdictions, the lack of recognition of trust structures is a result of the legal principle of “numerus clausus,” which is Latin for “closed number.” This principle means that the law only recognises a limited, pre-defined number of property rights. Consequently, civil law jurisdictions generally have a more restrictive understanding of property rights compared to common law jurisdictions. In civil law jurisdictions, the right to property is usually direct and absolute, with no room for the divided ownership that a trust structure inherently provides.
However, just because civil law jurisdictions do not recognise trust structures does not mean they lack mechanisms for managing and protecting assets. Several alternatives are available, some of which are unique to civil law jurisdictions, while others are universal but implemented in different ways.
One such alternative is the insurance contract. While not a direct substitute for a trust, an insurance contract can provide similar benefits, particularly in terms of asset protection and estate planning. In civil law jurisdictions, life insurance contracts are often used as an estate planning tool. The policyholder pays regular premiums to the insurance company, and upon the policyholder’s death, the insurer pays a sum to the beneficiaries. This arrangement can provide financial security for the beneficiaries, similar to a trust.
Moreover, life insurance contracts in civil law jurisdictions often include a clause that prevents the policy’s proceeds from being included in the policyholder’s estate. This means that the proceeds are not subject to inheritance tax and cannot be claimed by creditors, offering a degree of asset protection. In this sense, life insurance contracts can perform some of the same functions as a trust in common law jurisdictions, although the mechanisms are different.
Another alternative is the foundation, a legal entity common in many civil law jurisdictions. A foundation is a self-owned legal entity that holds and manages assets for a specific purpose, often philanthropic. Like a trust, a foundation can provide a means of separating assets from the personal estate of the founder, offering some degree of asset protection. However, unlike trusts, foundations are subject to more stringent regulations, and their use is often limited to specific purposes.
In some civil law jurisdictions, certain trust-like structures have been developed. For example, in Germany, the “Treuhand” is a legal arrangement whereby one party holds legal title to assets on behalf of another. This structure is used primarily in commercial transactions and is somewhat similar to a trust. However, the Treuhand does not offer the same level of flexibility and asset protection as a trust in common law jurisdictions.