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Trevor Cole in the British Virgin Islands.
Trevor Cole in the British Virgin Islands.

How I learned to avoid the taxman in the British Virgin Islands Add to ...

I ran this scenario past Kenney, to see if it would pass shady muster. He'd chased down billionaire husbands, one who'd forged his wife's signature on a divorce settlement that left her just $33 million. In his Tortola office, he nodded. "That's right in the middle of the road," he said. "You could get some people saying, 'Oooh, that's a little dodgy.'" That seemed just about right.

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Downtown Road Town is marked by a busy roundabout and the usual Caribbean atmospherics of car horns, exhaust fumes and a whiff of open sewers. In mid-December, Christmas featured prominently: Inflatable Santas and reindeer wobbled along Main Street in the humid air, and calypso versions of Christmas classics blasted from carpet-store speakers. There are street signs in Road Town, but no one uses addresses. Businesses locate their offices in named buildings, and it is up to you to know where those buildings are. My first appointment, for instance, was with a company I'll call Tortola Trust, in Palm Grove House, a stuccoed building in the banking district (where, as it happens, you'll also find branches of banks such as Scotiabank and the CIBC-owned FirstCaribbean International Bank; thanks to its historic ties to Britain, Canada has long had a dominant banking presence in the Caribbean.)

It took a while, and several entreaties for help from passersby, before I found Palm Grove House. Emerging from the elevator at Tortola Trust, I was greeted by two men in their mid-30s, a South African named Mike and a Brit named James, both of whom were dressed in shirt sleeves, open at the neck. They showed me through an impressive suite of offices into a large boardroom, and brought me a bottle of cold water.

After a few moments of chit-chat, I laid out my "situation." I mentioned a "significant amount of money" coming in and the fact that my wife and I had separated, and that I therefore had "concerns around that money."

James and Mike seemed to view this as reasonable. Thoughtful and relaxed, they probed for details, about my marriage, my family (did I have children?) and my assets. Whatever structure I set up wouldn't be to "defraud a creditor as such," James explained; it would be to help me "safeguard" future earnings. They both seemed quite interested in helping me do that.

I wondered out loud whether there was some way to avoid listing my assets under my name. Wasn't that something a BVI company could help me with?

James laid out my options. Most clients set up a BVI company, he explained, with shares listed in their own name, which would be public. "But then what people do to avoid that," he said, "is they put the shares in a trust. So you have the BVI company and the trust. And the trustee of that would be Tortola Trust BVI Ltd. So we would be the shareholder. So you could say it's definitely not in your name, it's in our name."

This is one of the ways to accomplish what's known as "layering"-putting degrees of separation between the public face of the company and the person that a creditor or a government is really interested in: the Ultimate Beneficial Owner. All of the due diligence requirements in the BVI rest on being able to provide that name when a court demands it. That's one of the reasons that, as of last year, you could no longer use "bearer" shares in the BVI. Bearer shares put ownership of a company in the hands of whoever physically held the shares; if the shares for Bob Island Inc. were kept in Bob's lawyer's safe, the lawyer became the owner.

With the elimination of bearer shares, the owner's name can't be completely hidden. But even so, layers can make the digging more difficult. James tried to explain the intricacies of the company-trust-trustee arrangement, and I tried to push him for assurances that my identity would be protected. "I wouldn't recommend, you know...we're not going to lie," said James, somewhat hesitantly. "But, 'Have you got any assets in your name?' No."

Wasn't that a bit risky, I wondered-to make someone else the legal owner of my assets? Yes, actually. It would be possible, James admitted, for the firm to remove me as director of my company, cash in my assets and hide them "somewhere else in the Caribbean." All of us in the boardroom had a good chuckle about that. And James said the firm had insurance to protect me.

As for what I could do with the assets held by my company, well, I could do anything. Although, "if you wanted to buy a nuclear power station," he said, grinning, "we may have some issues with that."

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