There are literally dozens of kinds of offshore companies--some of which only exist in one jurisdiction. However, the majority of offshore companies fall into a few categories.
The first big dividing line is between companies formed in common law jurisdictions and companies formed in civil law jurisdictions. Common-law companies are more numerous since the British essentially created most of the modern tax havens. The main types of common-law companies include:
Offshore corporations are the oldest form of offshore companies. While there are many subgroups, they can be divided into two main groups: the British model and the American model.
The British Offshore Company Model
The British offshore company model typically requires two documents to be filed with the registrar of companies. These are the Memorandum of Association, which are analogous to the US articles of incorporation, and the Articles of Association, which are analogous to the US corporate bylaws. Further, the British company model typically requires only two officers, a managing director and the secretary. The managing director must be a member of the Board of Directors. Depending upon the jurisdiction, any or all of the officers and directors could be other companies, rather than natural persons.
Two popular subtypes of the British offshore company model are the company limited by guarantee and the hybrid company. In the company limited by guarantee the shareholders personally guarantee a specific share of the company's operating capital, and if need be must provide that capital if required. The hybrid company is a combination of a regular corporation in a company limited by guarantee.
The American Offshore Company Model
The American offshore company model typically requires only one document, which can be as short as one-page, to be filed with the registrar of companies. This document is called the Articles of Incorporation. The US company model usually requires three officers, a president, secretary and treasurer, none of which must be members of the Board of Directors. In some jurisdictions these offices can all be held by one person. Depending upon the jurisdiction, any or all of the officers and directors could be other companies rather than natural persons.
Offshore Limited Partnerships
Offshore limited partnerships function exactly the same as onshore limited partnerships. The only difference is that offshore limited partnerships are tax free. The primary purpose of a limited partnership is to separate ownership from management in the simplest possible way. With the exception of certain reserved powers for the limited partners, a limited partnership is totally managed by its general partner. The governing document of a limited partnership is the partnership agreement.
The general partner has unlimited liability, while the limited partners--the investors in the partnership, have their liability limited to the amount they have invested in the partnership. In addition, the partnership interests of every member are protected from seizure by that member's third party creditors, unlike the shares of a corporation. Because the general partner has unlimited liability, and offshore corporation is usually used as a general partner so that the principals of that corporation are shielded from personal liability.
Offshore Limited Liability Companies
Offshore limited liability companies were created to include the simplicity of a limited partnership and the complete limited liability of a corporation. In addition, membership interests in a limited liability company are generally protected exactly like limited partnership interests: the membership interests of every member are protected from seizure by that member's third party creditors.
Limited liability companies are far more flexible in their management then either corporations or limited partnerships. A limited liability company can be managed directly by its members, or by managers who may or may not be members. The limited liability company operating agreement may specify virtually any arrangement regarding meetings, management, voting, distribution of profits or any other subject; except for those few things prohibited by law.
Offshore Protected Cell Companies
Offshore protected cell companies are corporations which were originally created for insurance purposes as vehicles designed to efficiently segregate risks. Essentially a protected cell company is a conglomerate which contains its subsidiaries and affiliates internally, rather than as freestanding external companies.
By law, the assets and liabilities of every cell are separate and apart from those of every other cell, and from the company itself. The ownership, and even management, of every cell may be different from every other cell and from the company itself. Protected cell companies are now being used for other investment purposes as well.
Offshore Specialty Companies
Offshore specialty companies include banks, insurance companies, trust companies and investment funds. Offshore banks and trust companies are inevitably formed as offshore corporations, while offshore insurance companies can be formed as either offshore corporations or offshore protected cell companies, and investment funds can be organized as offshore corporations, offshore protected cell companies, or even in some jurisdictions, offshore limited liability companies. In virtually every offshore jurisdiction, these specialty companies require a specific license in addition to their company formation.
In summary, virtually every form of onshore company has been replicated offshore, in a tax-free or tax reduced environment.
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