It’s true that you’re judged by the company you keep. Not always entirely fair, but true.
One of the speed bumps that slows safety-minded investors as they approach the decision to establish an international trust is the fear of mingling with shady companions. The uncomfortable and unacceptable picture is that the clientele of international financial institutions includes more than its share of people you wouldn’t want for next-door neighbors. People with something to hide. The upper crust of the criminal world. Operators like “Dr. No.”
The primary source of this anxiety is the US entertainment industry, one of whose products is morality cartoons. “International” is soft clay for their art, because it’s so unfamiliar to the audience. Places where government is small and inexpensive, where private wealth is respected and privacy is the norm. Places like the America of 200 years ago. Today such an environment seems exotic, almost alien, to TSA-patted Americans. It’s an image that works nicely in stories about drug dealers and embezzlers hiding ill-gotten mega-millions.
The message from Hollywood is reinforced in the public’s mind by elements of the political world that use a caricature of foreign financial centers as a whipping boy, one which won’t talk back. When faced with inconvenient questions as to why taxes are so high and the economy so weak, or when they defend proposals to further undermine your financial privacy, they fall back on a recital of the evils of international havens—the places where unpatriotic citizens send their money to avoid paying their “fair share” of taxes and where greedy corporations go to dodge taxes when they “export jobs.”
The facts of the real world don’t match the standard fictions of the movie and the political worlds.
In any of the jurisdictions worth considering for an international trust (you can find the best one here), you’ll be more carefully scrutinized than you would be by any financial institution you might visit in the US. To open a simple foreign bank account, you will usually need to show up in person and provide a copy of your passport and an original utility bill showing your name and address, to prove your place of residence. And if you want to deposit more than a small amount of cash, expect a polite refusal.
Establishing an international trust requires those same documents and more. You’ll be asked for a statement describing the sources of the money or other assets you intend to transfer to your trust. You’ll be asked for multiple professional references (your attorney, accountant, and banker). You may be required to execute an affidavit of solvency, by which you swear that your transfers to the trust will not leave you unable to pay your existing debts. And, although they will never mention it to you, the management of the trust company you’ve chosen will use the Internet and other resources to search for signs that you are a client they don’t want.
The trust company has strong reasons for being careful about the business it accepts. One reason is the local government’s licensing requirements. Most jurisdictions are jealous of their reputations. They know they need to compete, and they dread publicity about bad actors using them. An institution that fails to follow strict procedures for identifying and rejecting black money risks losing its license.
Within individual trust companies, the thinking is similar. The trust company wants to avoid any association with illegitimate business because management knows that a single bad apple can do terrible damage to its reputation. In many instances, the procedures a trust company adopts for vetting potential clients are stricter than what local laws and regulations require.
International trusts have long been used by the world’s wealthiest families to protect fortunes for future generations. They went international because they wanted safety, not because they wanted to go slumming. So if you ever see someone setting a paper bag stuffed with cash on the counter of an international bank, there’s a good chance you’ll be munching popcorn. You’re not actually in a bank. You’re in a movie theater.