I thought I would discuss the important issue of “Jurisdiction”. This is because I have been hearing a lot about some countries enacting “draconian” anti-offshore rules and regulations. I thought I would explain how and why most of these stories are rather apocryphal and mostly just propaganda to scare people into submission.
Here is a fairly good definition of jurisdiction:
‘In law, jurisdiction (from the Latin ius, iuris meaning “law” and dicere meaning “to speak”) is the practical authority granted to a formally constituted legal body or to a political leader to deal with and make pronouncements on legal matters and, by implication, to administer justice within a defined area of responsibility.’ (Wikipedia)
Now if, let’s say, Australia (or the USA, or the UK, etc.) says in its propaganda literature produced by the tax authorities that new laws are being enacted to do away with “illegal offshore tax dodges”, I want to explain why people should not be too terrified. If done properly, systems can be created that will legally remove the transactions from the jurisdiction of that country making the hyperbole meaningless.
I would like to try to explain what Jurisdiction is by using an allegory.
Let us pretend that there is an odd little country named OustMuensterMark. No one really knows quite where this place is, but it is a fairly backward place. It is ruled by a rather mad Baron named Ruprecht the Red. Ruprecht recently enacted a series of tax laws which require any company doing business in OustMuensterMark to pay roughly 150% of its net profits in taxes, and require the officers to submit their eldest children hostage to the Secret Police. Although the taxes are punitive, there are so many loopholes and exceptions to the tax rules that business manages to limp along in the country, but the place is far from prosperous.
Now let us further pretend that you have a little company chartered and operating out of Florida. Your company’s name is “Wingnuts R Us, LLC” and you sell wingnuts. Every month the Museum for the Science and History of Torture and Decapitation of OustMuensterMark orders $5.35 in wingnuts to be used to tightly enclose their numerous and ever growing display cases. Are you now bound by the laws of OustMuensterMark? Should you be forking over all your money to either Ruprecht’s Tax Collection and Torture Agency or to tax attorneys in OustMuensterMark? Perhaps you should hand over your eldest child to the Secret Police? I think it is fairly clear that your sale of wingnuts to the Museum does not bring you under the jurisdiction of Ruprecht the Red. Have no fear!
One day, Ruprecht wakes up and leaps out of bed stark naked and starts running through the palace screaming, “The British are coming! The British are coming! To Arms! To Arms!!!!” The only British that are found are a few nannies on their way to work at the Royal Orphanage. After directing the thorough interrogation and torture of the unfortunate nannies to no effect, Ruprecht collapses on the floor, a victim of his own hysterical energies. His attendants put pants on him, his doctors put a straight-jacket on him, and the Thingamajig, the Legislature of OustMuensterMark, meets and finally declares Ruprecht the Red to be unfit to rule, and appoints Waldwak the Wise, an adopted child of one of Ruprecht’s distant cousins, to become the new Baron. Luckily for the unhappy state, Waldwak does not suffer from any of the mental infirmities so common in Ruprecht and his other relations. Waldwak completely abolishes the tax code and torture (putting thousands of tax attorneys and tax collectors out of work). Instead of the confusing tax code of Ruprecht, a simple 10% sales tax on goods sold inside the country is imposed and things start to change for the better. Business booms, tax receipts grow, and the Thingamajig votes to rename the country OustWaldwakMark (hereinafter OWM).
One day you get an email from an enterprising tax attorney from OWM offering to establish a Limited Liability Company for you. The email explains that your taxes will be next to nothing, and that you will be able to keep the rest of the money for your pet project of saving orphaned giraffes. You sign up and immediately notice the dramatic increase in your cash register since you are no longer paying Florida and US taxes, and you only have to pay $0.54 cents in taxes a month for the sale of wingnuts to the Museum.
At least until the State of Florida and the US IRS impound your bank accounts, factory, warehouse, cars, house, furnishings, inventory, and dental work. Although you were in complete compliance with the laws of OWM, you were under the jurisdiction of the State of Florida and the USA since your factory, warehouse, distribution center, headquarters, house, car and bank accounts were all located there. Just as the repressive and illogical laws of Ruprecht the Red had no effect upon you when you sold a few wingnuts to the Museum, neither did the enlightened actions of Waldwak the Wise protect you from the jurisdiction of the location where you are located and doing business. And simply establishing a company in OWM did not change that since the new company simply came under the same jurisdiction for the same reasons.
If only you had better understood the concept of jurisdiction! You see, the idea was not so bad, it was just the sloppy, perhaps greedy, execution of the system that was flawed. It was possible to take advantage of the benefits of an OWM Company, but you needed to structure things very differently. First of all, the Florida company should not have been terminated, but should have been kept for the purpose of managing the domestic production and sale of wingnuts. The OWM Company should have been used to manage your considerable foreign sales. The Florida Company should have sold wingnuts to the OWM Company at a reasonable profit based on wholesale prices (not retail), and then the OWM Company would have sold the wingnuts around the world out of their modest offices in OWM. If only $5.35 in wingnuts were sold in OWM, then the tax would remain at $0.54, but if $10,000,000 in wingnuts were sold elsewhere (except the USA) these sales would be tax free. Although the US tax authorities may or may not like such a transaction, as long as the initial wholesale transaction from the Florida Company to the OWM Company was legitimate and resulted in reasonable taxable gains, the additional profits earned by the OWM Company in global sales are simply outside the jurisdiction of the USA. This system is legal, ethical and completely acceptable.
Now on a more philosophical note…
How can jurisdiction be established?
- A nation has jurisdiction over you because you were born there and you are forever subject to its whims; or
- Jurisdiction is based upon an agreement between the individual and the governing entity.
In the first case, jurisdiction seems to be based upon some strange power that is imputed to a location. Rather like the saying that you can pick your friends but are stuck with your family. But this seems irrational and unreasonable. Why should an individual be subject to the jurisdiction of a particular place merely because of an accident of birth? The second choice seems more logical. You are subject to a particular jurisdiction because you “agree” by your actions and/or your presence. The agreement may be far from voluntary, but it is an agreement to submit to authority all the same. If someone holds a knife to your throat, holds your family and all your property hostage, and deprives you of the ability to go elsewhere, although it may be morally repugnant, accepting this person’s authority is all the same a choice you made even if under duress.
History suggests that most agreements regarding jurisdiction have been formed in just such coercive ways. In a way it is only logical, since authority is something that must be imposed to one degree or another. Only in recent history has the concept of jurisdictional agreement been treated as a matter of true choice which a “free” person can choose to accept or reject. In point of fact, this right to reject a jurisdiction is the basis of most of Western Political thought. But this is still mostly philosophical. The fact of the matter is that you are bound by a jurisdiction simply because you are within the grasp and power of the authorities, and it would be foolish to ever expect such authorities to willfully relinquish that which gives them power.
What can we make of this? In most modern democratic countries it is possible to take advantage of different jurisdictions in order to protect your assets, reduce your taxes, and to obtain greater financial privacy. This is because even as they complain about the loss of tax revenue, these nations still acknowledge the ancient concept of jurisdiction. However, this must be done with attention to the laws and with proper execution. If you wish to take advantage of the low tax rates of a “tax haven” you must make sure that the transactions which you are imputing to the “tax haven” do not fall within the jurisdiction of another more rapacious government authority. Simply getting a company from another country and waiving it around like a magic wand will only make you look foolish and cause you great harm when the trick does not work.
If you would like to chat about asset protection, tax planning, and financial privacy, please feel free to contact me.