Protecting Your Assets from an Out-of-Control Government, Part II
“Stay at home is still the norm for Americans,” I observed in yesterday’s Daily Reckoning. “but it’s a norm that is slowly fading. Every billion-dollar tick of the government debt clock, every expansion of the government’s regulatory apparatus, every overreaching judicial decision made in the name of a compelling public need,…every intellectually tortured discovery of a new meaning in the Constitution’s 4,400 old words leaves a few thousand more people wondering how prudent it is to consign all their eggs to a single national basket.
“Most Americans still have yet to stick a single financial toe across the border,” I explained, “but more and more are considering it…Because internationalizing your financial life means dealing with the unfamiliar, the project can seem more complex than it really is, so it’s best to start with the simplest measures, even if by themselves they don’t give you all the safety you’re looking for. Even from a simple beginning, what you learn with each step will make the next step easier to plan. Start with the first rung on the ladder of internationalization. Then climb, at your own speed, to reach the right level of protection.”
Yesterday I described the first three rungs of this ladder. Today, I present the rest…
Rung 4: A Swiss Annuity
A conventional annuity contract is a device for accumulating investment returns and eventually converting the value into a lifetime income. The investment return on an annuity from a US insurance company is tax deferred until it is paid out to you. If you buy an annuity from a foreign company, tax deferral is available only if the annuity’s value is tied to the performance of a pool of investments (a variable annuity).
Swiss annuities have long held a special place in personal financial planning. Such an annuity is denominated in Swiss francs, i.e., it’s francs, not dollars, that are owed to you. The Swiss insurance industry has a perfect record; policyholders have never been hurt by a default. And a Swiss annuity comes with an element of protection from would-be lawsuit creditors.
The Swiss franc is, like every other modern-day currency, just a piece of paper. It’s not redeemable for anything, not even a piece of chocolate. But the Swiss National Bank has a remarkable record of restraint in issuing new francs, which means that the franc’s prospects for holding its value have long been rated better than for any other currency.
I believe that is still the case, despite the Swiss National Bank’s current policy of suppressing any further increase in the price of the franc. In September, in order to save export industries from being crushed by the franc’s rapid appreciation against other currencies, the Swiss National Bank announced that it would purchase euros without limit to enforce a minimum exchange rate of 1.2 francs per euro — which implies printing enough francs to pay for those euros. By itself, it is an inflationary move, but it’s not a suicide pact with the European Central Bank (the issuing authority for euros). If the ECB turns to a policy of rapid inflation, I would expect the Swiss National Bank at some point to decouple the franc from the euro and let the franc’s price rise. So owning some Swiss francs, whether directly or through an annuity, is still a good step toward internationalizing your financial life.
Under Swiss law, an annuity is protected from the owner’s creditors if the beneficiaries consist of family members or if the owner has made a beneficiary designation that is irrevocable. For an owner in the US, that protection is not an impenetrable barrier to the winner of a lawsuit, but it is a barrier, and it makes the annuity a less-than-ideal prize for an attacker.
Earnings that are accumulating in a Swiss annuity are not eligible for tax deferral for a US taxpayer. The advantages are currency protection, the reliability of Swiss insurance companies and a measure of asset protection.
Rung 5: Foreign Real Estate
Owning real estate in another country gives you a suite of protections that distinguishes it from other steps toward internationalization.
First, the property’s value will depend on economic conditions in the country you’ve chosen, not on what happens in the US. If the economy of the foreign country grows and prospers, there is likely to be a spillover effect on the market value of your house, apartment, farm or patch of land — regardless of what is going on in the US.
Second, a foreign real estate investment would be hard to digest for any future capital controls imposed by the US. New rules could compel you to repatriate the cash you have in a foreign bank; rules forcing you to liquidate your foreign real estate and bring the money home would be another matter. Selling real estate isn’t quick or easy. How does the government compel an unwilling citizen to do what an eager seller often finds difficult to accomplish?
Third, as a potential prize for a lawsuit attacker, foreign real estate is a stinker. Even if he wins a judgment against you, foreclosing on your foreign property would be difficult to impossible, since it would require the cooperation of the courts in the foreign country, about whose rules and procedures the attacker’s attorney probably knows nothing. But he does know that even if he persuades a court in the US to order you to sell the property, the inherent illiquidity of real estate would give you plenty of opportunities for foot-dragging.
Where to buy? The whole world is open to you… which can be a problem. So many possibilities and no obvious place to start. One approach is to think about where you’ve been that you’d like to visit again or about some place you’ve long wanted to see. Plan to spend a few weeks there. Minimize your hotel hours, to maximize your exposure to the rest of the locale. Try to meet Americans, perhaps expatriates, who know their way around the place and who can point you toward a real estate broker who won’t try to treat you as an out-of-town sucker.
Buying foreign real estate isn’t for everyone. It requires a big investment in time and effort, but it could repay you with an asset that is low on the list of things anyone might try to take from you.
Rung 6: A Foreign LLC for Investments
A limited liability company organized under the laws of a foreign country is easy to set up and not too expensive. To bring the company into existence, you (or a service you hire) would file a simple form with a government office in the country you’ve chosen and pay a small fee. Then you as the LLC’s Manager and you as the LLC’s owner would enter into an agreement (the “operating agreement”) that would be the company’s governing instrument.
As the LLC’s Manager, you would open a non-US bank account or brokerage account in the name of the LLC and transfer your personal cash and investments to that account. Again as Manager, you would make all the investment decisions.
For a US person, a foreign LLC can be a powerful door-opener. It is welcome at many banks and brokerage firms where you personally would be turned away. This enables you to keep a wider range of assets outside the US, which puts more wealth beyond the reach of any arbitrary bureaucratic action. It also gives you investment choices that aren’t available at home.
Access to foreign investments and overseas financial services is reason enough to consider using a foreign limited liability company. But it can do much more for you, although at the cost of some complexity.
Notice the fundamental difference between a foreign LLC and what is going on at the first four rungs of the ladder of internationalization. With the LLC, you no longer personally own the assets you are trying to protect; the company owns them. This makes the LLC a powerful device for reducing your family’s expose to gift and estate taxes. And with the right provisions in the operating agreement, it can provide strong protection against loss to any malicious lawsuit.
If you are the sole owner of a foreign LLC intended for holding investments, you can and almost certainly should file an election for the LLC to be treated as a disregarded entity (indistinguishable from you for income tax purposes). If your spouse or anyone else is going to share in ownership of the LLC, the company can and should elect to be treated as a partnership for income tax purposes.
Rung 7: A Foreign LLC for Business
A business that operates outside the US does even more than a portfolio of foreign investments to give you the benefits of internationalization.
By its nature, a foreign business lives in a different environment than a business in the US. Economic troubles at home might not touch it. If it’s a business that depends on your personal efforts, it’s even less attractive as a lawsuit prize than foreign real estate. Being foreign, it would be outside the range of capital controls in the US. And many of the financial institutions that might turn away an investment-owning LLC because it is owned by an American will welcome an LLC that makes or sells goods or services.
If you already have a business in the US that has foreign customers or foreign suppliers, you may be able to relocate the business’s non-US activities to a foreign LLC. Internet-based businesses are especially amenable to internationalization.
Locating your business in a low-tax or no-tax jurisdiction, if it is practical to do so, can reduce your overall tax burden. In many cases, a foreign LLC that operates a business should elect to be treated as a foreign corporation for US income tax purposes. That can allow the business to reinvest its earnings while it pays little in current taxes and you personally pay nothing.
Rung 8: An International Trust That You Establish
Establishing a trust outside the US is the strongest internationalization step you can take for yourself and your family. Doing so costs more than any other measure, but the costs needn’t be prohibitive if your goal is to move $500,000 or more into the safest structure possible. What you achieve is a very high level of protection from aggressive lawsuits, from potential capital controls and from the possibility of a gold seizure. The trust also puts your wealth in a far better environment for income tax planning and for estate planning.
To serve the purposes of protection and tax savings, an international trust is irrevocable (you can’t simply call the institution you’ve chosen as trustee and say you’ve changed your mind) and discretionary (meaning that the trustee has a responsibility to decide when to send a check to you or to any of the other beneficiaries you’ve included). Putting assets under the control of a trust company under such an arrangement is a big step. You’re not going to do it unless you’ve done the homework needed to understand how and why you can count on the trustee to handle the assets in the way you intend.
Getting the protection and tax savings of an international trust doesn’t require you to give up management control of the assets. The trust can be limited to owning just one thing — an LLC that you manage. The LLC owns all the investments, under your supervision as LLC Manager.
If you establish an international trust, it will be tied to you for income tax purposes. But at the end of your lifetime, it will completely disconnect from the US tax system. At that point, for the benefit of your survivors, it becomes…
Rung 9: An International Trust Someone Else Established
Being a beneficiary of an international trust established by someone other than a living US person is as good as it gets. It’s not linked to you by any transfers you’ve made to it, and you don’t have a determinable percentage interest in it (since it’s a discretionary trust). So until you actually receive a distribution, there is nothing for you to report, nothing for you to pay tax on and nothing a potential lawsuit creditor can hope to take from you. And, having no living connection to the US, the trust is as far beyond the orbit of any conceivable US gold seizure or currency controls as the former planet Pluto.
One Toe over the Line
It’s a long way from walking into the local coin shop and buying a few one-tenth-ounce gold Eagles to setting up a trust in a foreign country. But the distance isn’t nearly as great as you might imagine, and it will get shorter both in fact and in apprehension with each step you take.
As you move up the ladder, you’ll learn about the reporting requirements for US taxpayers. Rung 1 (gold coins in your pocket) entails no reporting, nor does Rung 8 until you actually receive a distribution. Rung 5 (foreign real estate) also is free of reporting requirements, at least for now. But under rules in effect now or soon to come, everything else covered in this article entails filing a form with the US government. The most reliable way to make sure that you stay within the rules, so that internationalization adds to your safety and not to your problems, is to let your accountant know what you are doing. Keep him informed, so that he can see to it that all the reporting requirements are satisfied.