Belize: Offshore Services Overview - Belize

Last Updated: 2 November 2001
Article by Christopher Coye

Background
Registration of Merchant Ships Act
International Business Companies Act
Trusts Act
Offshore Banking Act
Money Laundering (Prevention) Act
International Financial Services Commission Act
International Insurance Act
Mutual Funds Act
Protected Cell Companies Act
Limited Liability Partnership Act
Retired Persons (Incentives) Act
International Financial Services Commission
Commercial Free Zone Act
Export Processing Zone Act
Future Legislation
Comment

 

Background

Belize is now in its second decade of providing international financial services. Belize's first inroad into this industry was an opportunistic effort to take advantage of the exodus of merchant ship registrations during the United States-Panama crisis in 1989. Since then Belize has matured into a full service international financial jurisdiction, with a wide range of enabling offshore legislation.

In expanding its scope of service, Belize has not forgotten the importance of having in place the appropriate regulatory mechanisms to maintain and enhance its reputation as a jurisdiction committed to preventing abuse by criminal elements. As such, the Offshore Banking Act was delayed until appropriate anti-money laundering legislation could be enacted. The International Financial Services Commission was also established to regulate the provision of international financial services (IFS), including registered agent services for international business companies and trustee services. Any IFS practitioner must be licensed to practise by the IFS Commission and strict due diligence requirements are necessary before any application can be approved. Recently a code of conduct has been passed governing, among other things, the client verification practices of IFS practitioners (particularly registered agents).

Registration of Merchant Ships Act

In 1989 Belize enacted the Registration of Merchant Ships Act, which established an open ship registry, the International Merchant Marine Registry of Belize (IMMARBE). The Registration of Merchant Ships Act has since been amended in 1996. Numerous regulations have also been passed to make the process of registration with IMMARBE more transparent and make IMMARBE comply with international merchant shipping standards. These include the following:

  • the Registration of Merchant Ships Regulations 1991;
  • the Vessels under 500 Gross Registered Tons (in Service Outside the Territorial Waters of Belize) Regulations 1991 (amended 1997);
  • the Pleasure Vessels Regulations 1991;
  • the Fishing Vessels of 24 Metres in Length and Above Safety Regulations 1995;
  • the Disciplinary Regulations 1999; and
  • the Safe Manning, Hours of Work and Watchkeeping Regulations.

Other applicable legislation includes:

  • parts of the UK Merchant Shipping Act 1894;
  • the UK Merchant Shipping (Tonnage) Act 1965;
  • the UK Merchant Shipping (Oil Pollution) Act 1974;
  • the UK Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners) Act 1958; and
  • the UK Merchant Shipping (Safety and Load Line Conventions) Act 1932.

All of these acts were extended to Belize while it was a colony of the United Kingdom.

Under the Registration of Merchant Ships Act, any person of the age of majority (or his or her authorized representative) or a corporate body may apply to any office of IMMARBE for registration of a vessel in IMMARBE. The application must be accompanied by the appropriate fee, which is based on the size of the vessel. The application for provisional registration should be accompanied by a duly notarized power of attorney in favour of the vessel's agent. Every vessel accepted for registration is granted a provisional registration that is valid for six months.

An applicant may apply for permanent registration while the provisional registration is valid. However, every application for permanent registration must be accompanied by:

  • a duly notarized bill of sale (or builder's certificate if the vessel has been newly built);
  • an original deletion certificate or a certified copy of the extract of registry from the previous flag administration;
  • a duly notarized power of attorney in favour of the shipping agent of the vessel;
  • an original or certified true copy of a tonnage certificate issue by a survey company authorized by IMMARBE; and
  • in the case of a vessel that is more than 20 years old, an inspection report prepared by an authorized government safety inspection surveyor stating that the vessel has passed a seaworthiness inspection.

The expertise and efficiency of IMMARBE and the low costs of registration make Belize an attractive jurisdiction for merchant ship registration.

International Business Companies Act

In 1990 Belize enacted the International Business Companies (IBC) Act, which was based on the British Virgin Islands model. Any person (not a resident of Belize) may, singly or jointly, incorporate a company under this act provided that their objective is not prohibited by any of the laws of Belize.

The only limitations of an IBC are that it cannot:

  • carry out business with persons resident in Belize;
  • own an interest in real property situated in Belize;
  • carry out banking business, trust business, collective investment schemes, or business as an insurance or reinsurance company, insurance agent or broker, unless it is licensed under an enactment authorizing it to carry out such business;
  • carry out the business of providing the registered office for companies; or
  • hold securities in, or issue them to, a local company.

Recently the IBC Act has been amended to provide for the incorporation of limited life companies.

A Belize IBC enjoys total income and business tax and stamp duty exemptions. Equally important, an IBC is exempt from exchange control regulation.

Although Belize's IBC Act is standard mirroring the British Virgin Islands model, Belize is an extremely attractive jurisdiction for IBC formations due to the efficiency and relatively low cost of registration by the IBC Registry, and Belize's status as an independent sovereign and economically stable country. The recent statistics on IBC registration bear out Belize's growing popularity, as it is enjoying the fastest rate of IBC registration among Caribbean offshore jurisdictions (including the British Virgin Islands).

Trusts Act

Belize's Trusts Act was enacted in 1992 to supplement offshore legislation. It remains one of the strongest and most flexible asset protection trust statutes in the world.

Where a trust is created under the law of Belize, the Supreme Court of Belize shall not vary it, set it aside or recognize the validity of any claim against the trust property pursuant to the law of another jurisdiction or the order of a court of another jurisdiction in respect of:

  • the personal and proprietary consequences of marriage or the termination of marriage;
  • succession rights (whether testate or intestate), including the fixed shares of spouses or relatives; or
  • the claims of creditors in insolvency.

The law goes so far as to provide that the statutory prohibition on voluntary transfers with intent to defraud creditors in the relevant legislation shall not apply to a Belize trust. Further, the reciprocal enforcement of judgments legislation does not apply to a trust, so fresh proceedings must be brought in Belize in every instance involving a Belize trust. The rule against perpetuities does not apply to a trust and the maximum duration of a trust is 120 years. A Belize trust may be created by oral declaration, by an instrument in writing (including a will or codicil), or by conduct, operation of law or any other manner. However, a unit trust may only be created by an instrument in writing. No formalities or technical expressions are required for the creation of a trust provided that the intention of the settlor to create a trust is clearly manifested. The Trusts Act also provides that a settlor may be a trustee, protector or beneficiary, or serve in all capacities concurrently. The Trusts Act also provides for the optional registration of a trust. At the same time, the Register of Trusts shall not be open to inspection, except where the trustee of a trust authorizes (in writing) an individual to inspect the entry of that trust on the register. Where, for a particular Belize trust in any year, neither the settlor nor any of the beneficiaries are resident in Belize and the trust property does not include land situated in Belize, the trust shall enjoy total income tax, business tax and stamp duty exemptions, and the exchange control regulations shall not apply.

Belize trust legislation has stood the test of time and test cases, as the formation of trusts in Belize continues to grow at a steady pace despite the transformation of certain developed countries' tax regimes, given the unmatched asset protection provisions.

Offshore Banking Act

Belize's Offshore Banking Act was enacted in 1996 in conjunction with the Money Laundering Prevention Act. Given Belize's late entry into the offshore banking industry, the act seeks to serve the market for small to medium-sized offshore banking operations while also accommodating larger operations. For unrestricted offshore banking licensees, the act requires a comparatively small paid-up capital of US$500,000. For restricted offshore banking licensees, the capital requirement is US$200,000.

As under the other offshore legislation, an offshore banking licensee and its clients and shareholders enjoy total income, business tax, stamp duty and currency and exchange control exemptions. The act has extensive confidentiality provisions. No individual should disclose any information relating to the affairs of a licensee (or any customer of a licensee) which he or she has acquired in the performance of his or her duties or the exercise of his or her functions under the act except where such information:

  • is lawfully required or permitted by any law or court of competent jurisdiction in Belize;
  • concerns the affairs of the licensee (or a customer of the licensee) and the authority of the licensee (or the customer of the licensee) has been given voluntarily; or
  • is disclosed by the Central Bank of Belize to a banking regulatory or supervisory authority abroad, where such information is considered necessary for that authority to exercise functions similar to those of the Central Bank, including any information that will assist the authority in its consolidated supervision of a banking group that controls or is affiliated with the licensee. The Central Bank should not make a disclosure in this circumstance unless (i) it is satisfied that adequate legal restrictions exist on further disclosures, including an undertaking on confidentiality by the intended recipient banking regulatory or supervisory authority, and (ii) it relates to information on large credit exposures that exceed 25% of a licensee's capital.

The Central Bank is the supervisory authority for offshore banking licensees. It scrutinizes every application for an offshore banking licence before making its recommendation to the appropriate minister for approval and licensing or rejection.

A company is eligible for a licence if:

  • it is incorporated or registered under the Companies Act or IBC Act as a company limited by shares;
  • it is a foreign bank;
  • its shares are in registered form and not in bearer form;
  • its memorandum and articles of association are acceptable to the Central Bank; and
  • its authorized and paid-up capital accords with the relevant requirements.

An eligible company wishing to carry out offshore banking business from within Belize must make an application to the Central Bank for the granting of a licence. An application must show that the applicant is an eligible company. The Central Bank requires that such applications give particulars of, but are not limited to the following:

  • the names and addresses of the directors and principal shareholders;
  • the ultimate beneficial ownership of the company or proposed company where the shareholders of record are (or will be) corporations, trusts, or other legal entities or organizations, or where the shareholders of record are acting as nominees for or under the direction of any other person notwithstanding other legal provisions;
  • the shareholding structure and management of the company; and
  • the financial standing of the company, if applicable.

The Central Bank also requires that the application be accompanied by the following:

  • a detailed business and financial plan of the company;
  • particulars of referees, guarantors and other third parties;
  • details of any subsidiary or affiliated company;
  • details of any overseas office that the company has or proposes to open;
  • the names and addresses of the external auditors of the company (or proposed company), including the experience of the auditors in auditing banks;
  • any other information that the Central Bank requires; and
  • a non-refundable fee of US$500.

All documents should be signed by the directors of the eligible company or proposed company making the application. The Central Bank also requires that the applicant appoint a spokesperson to be available in Belize for meetings with representatives of the bank or other local authorities.

The Central Bank will then conduct an investigation to satisfy itself that the applicant meets the licensing criteria and that it will conduct its business in a sound and prudent manner. The Central Bank submits its recommendation to the minister for international financial affairs within 60 days of acceptance of the application. The minister for international financial affairs will give his decision on an application within four weeks of receipt of the recommendation. Any licence granted remains valid until revoked, but it is a condition of every licence that an annual fee is paid. The annual fee for an unrestricted licensee is US$20,000. For a restricted licensee it is US$15,000.

Money Laundering (Prevention) Act

The Money Laundering (Prevention) Act is particularly applicable to the offshore industry. The act establishes systems and procedures to ensure that the country's financial institutions are not used to disguise the source of illicit founds. Each financial institution is obliged to:

  • keep records of all transactions for five years;
  • report suspicious transactions to the Central Bank if it suspects that money laundering activities may be occurring;
  • facilitate any investigation by the Central Bank following a report or investigation;
  • permit any member of the Central Bank to enter its premises during working hours in order to inspect records, make any notes or take any copies of the records, and cooperate fully with any of the Central Bank's inquiries; and
  • comply with the guidelines and training requirements issued by the Central Bank.

Money laundering is committed when one (i) engages, directly or indirectly, in a transaction involving property that is the proceeds of crime, knowing or having reasonable grounds for believing that it is so; or (ii) receives, possesses, manages, invests, conceals, disguises, disposes of or brings into Belize any property that is the proceeds of crime, knowing or having reasonable grounds for believing that it is so. An individual who is found guilty of a money laundering offence (including attempting to, aiding and abetting, or conspiring to launder money) shall be punished with a fine ranging from between US$12,500 and US$50,000, or with imprisonment for three to six years, or both.

International Financial Services Commission Act

Reflecting the new administration's mandate to develop and expand the IFS industry, seven offshore industry bills were introduced into the National Assembly in 1999, all of which have been enacted. Foremost among them is the IFS Commission Act. The commission consists of five members of the private sector, comprising a majority, with the director general of the commission being an ex-officio member, and the governor of the Central Bank, and the financial secretary or their respective representatives being the other members.

The functions of the commission are the following:

  • to promote and develop Belize as a centre for carrying out international financial services;
  • to protect and enhance internationally the reputation of Belize as a financial services centre;
  • to provide, with the minister for international financial affairs's concurrence and within the framework of local legislation, appropriate supervision and regulation of the conduct of international financial services;
  • to formulate appropriate policies, and provide advice and assistance to the government on the regulation of international financial services;
  • to prepare and submit to the government on a regular basis and as occasion demands, reports and memoranda of interest to the development, protection and regulation of Belize's international financial services sector; and
  • to collect, store and disseminate to interested parties, on a continuous basis, reliable and timely information on the growth and trends of Belize's IFS sector.

Under an amendment to the IFS Commission Act of 2000, IFS practitioners must now obtain a licence from the commission in order to provide international financial services (in particular, registered agent services and offshore trust formation and trustee services). The commission carries out thorough background and due diligence checks of all applicants to ensure that only reputable and genuine service providers will be licensed. The IBC Act has been amended to reflect the requirement of a licence to practice as a registered agent.

International Insurance Act

The International Insurance Act was enacted in 1999 to provide for the regulation of persons carrying out international insurance business in Belize, inclusive of annuities. It includes provisions similar to the Insurance Law of the Cayman Islands. For asset protection purposes it provides for the establishment of segregated premium accounts protected against the insolvency or liability of the insurer. Also, special provisions provide for re-insurance and captive insurance, including broad exemptions for single-client reinsurers and captives. Flexibility-enhancing innovations include provisions which allow a policy to provide that premiums may be payable in securities, promissory notes, bonds, debentures, real or personal property or any other asset or things of value acceptable to the insurer. The act recognizes the legitimacy and validity of split-dollar arrangements. In addition it prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of confidential information regarding any insurance matter obtained by a person in an official or professional capacity. There are also the usual income tax, business tax, stamp duty and currency and exchange control exemptions.

Mutual Funds Act

The Mutual Funds Act was enacted in 1999 for the authorization, regulation and control of mutual funds in Belize. The act provides for the authorization constituted under the laws of Belize and abroad. It establishes three classes of mutual funds:

  • public funds;
  • private funds; and
  • professional funds.

Public funds can offer shares for subscription to the public or any section thereof. Private funds must have less than 50 investors and the constitutional documents must prohibit the offering of shares to the public. Professional funds can be offered only to professional investors and the initial investment in respect of each investor must be at least US$100,000. 'Professional investors' are defined as persons whose ordinary business involves the acquisition or disposal of property of the same kind as the property or a substantial part of the property of the fund, or an individual who has signed a declaration that he or she has net worth in excess of US$1 million and that he or she consents to being treated as a professional investor.

While public funds require registration by the registrar of mutual funds, private and professional funds need only be recognized by the registrar. Before a fund can apply to be registered as a public fund, it must obtain the minister for international financial affairs's consent to apply for registration. Prior to offering its shares to the public, it must publish and file a prospectus. It must maintain proper accounting records and make them available for inspection by the registrar. The procedure for obtaining recognition by the registrar of a private or professional fund depends on whether the fund is constituted under the laws of Belize. A private or professional fund constituted under the laws of Belize must be granted recognition by the registrar if the minister for international financial affairs is satisfied that it is a private or professional fund within the meaning of the act and has issued certain statutory notices. The granting of recognition to a fund constituted outside of Belize is discretionary. The act also provides for the licensing of managers and administrators of mutual funds.

Protected Cell Companies Act

The Protected Cell Companies Act, modelled on the Cayman Islands legislation, was passed in 1999 to support the newly enabled and regulated mutual fund and international insurance business. A protected cell company is a single legal person and the creation of a protected cell does not create a separate legal person. A protected cell company may create one or more cells for the purpose of segregating and protecting cellular assets. Where the liability of a protected cell company towards an individual arises from a transaction (or is otherwise imposed), the liability of the protected cell is extended only to that individual. He or she may have recourse only to the cellular assets attributable to that cell and, to the extent that the cellular assets attributable to that cell of the company are insufficient, to the protected cell company's non-cellular assets. The liability of the protected cell company shall not extend to the cellular assets attributable to any other cell of the protected cell company.

Limited Liability Partnership Act

The Limited Liability Partnership Act was passed in 1999 to provide for the establishment, registration, dissolution and winding up of limited liability partnerships. A limited liability partnership may be registered where persons who wish to carry on a business in order to make a profit and have agreed (with or without other terms) that:

  • the business shall be carried on, following the registration date, in the form of a limited liability partnership;
  • they shall each contribute effort and skill to the business as an agent of the limited liability partnership, but not of each other;
  • the profit of the business shall be divided between them; and
  • they shall each have an interest in the limited liability partnership property.

The Belize Limited Liability Partnership Act is similar to other limited partnership laws in that it is a legal person distinct from the partners. Each partner has an interest in the profits of the partnership. A limited liability partnership must maintain a financial provision with a bank or insurance company to pay an aggregate amount of at least US$250,000 to the individual winding up the affairs of the partnership.

Retired Persons (Incentives) Act

The Retired Persons (Incentives) Act was enacted to encourage and promote the inflow of foreign capital by offering certain tax and duty exemptions and incentives to qualified retired persons (QRPs). An applicant must be at least 45 years old and a beneficial owner of a pension or annuity. This ties in with the international insurance legislation, which allows for the sale and purchase of private annuities. Applicants must give a written undertaking to deposit for personal use in a bank, credit union, building society or other financial institution either US$2,000 by the fifteenth day of each month or an annual sum of US$24,000 by April 1 of each year. Initially, the programme only provided incentives for citizens or legal permanent residents of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Belize. However, an amendment has been passed recently that expands the programme to citizens or legal permanent residents of every country.

A person who has been designated a QRP is entitled to enter and remain in Belize along with his or her dependants from time to time, and for such time as he remains a QRP. Within one year of first entering Belize, a QRP may import his or her personal effects and approved means of transportation for personal use, free of all import duties and taxes. For every three years thereafter, having proved that he or she has properly disposed of the means of transportation that was previously imported, he or she may import new approved means of transportation upon such concessionary terms as the minister for international financial affairs and/or the regulations provide. A QRP is exempt from the payment of all taxes and levies on all income or receipts which have been accrued from a source abroad (or from a person resident abroad) and in respect of work performed or investments made abroad, whether such income is earned or passive income and remitted in Belize. A QRP is deemed to be a non-resident for the purposes of:

  • the Offshore Banking Act;
  • the Exchange Control Regulations Act;
  • the International Business Companies Act;
  • the Trusts Act;
  • the Immigration Act;
  • the Belizean Nationality Act; and
  • any other act that relates to international financial services.

Although QRPs other than citizens or permanent legal residents of Belize are prohibited from engaging in gainful employment and may not seek paid or unpaid employment in Belize, they may carry out business from Belize. The business must concern activities carried out mostly abroad and must be conducted exclusively with non-residents of Belize.

This programme has been successful despite its initial citizenship limitations, so much so that the government has decided to extend its applicability to citizens of every country.

International Financial Services Commission

The IFS Commission passed the International Financial Services Practitioners (Code of Conduct) Regulations. The regulations, which took effect on July 1 2001, stipulate that all IFS practitioners:

  • must cooperate in the prevention of money laundering and other criminal activities;
  • should be able to verify their clients and adhere to know their customer principles;
  • should take all measures to avoid money laundering and fiscal/exchange control offences; and
  • should ensure that their staff are adequately trained and keep appropriate records.

The code of conduct also provides for the immobilization of bearer shares in the hands of the registered agent or a professional intermediary customer of the registered agent.

IFS practitioners are responsible to the director general of the IFS Commission for any allegations of suspicious transactions or misconduct. In the event that the commission finds that an IFS practitioner has committed a breach of the regulations, the commission is entitled to reprimand them severely, revoke their licence or suspend it for up to six months, or impose a fine of up to US$5,000.

Commercial Free Zone Act

The Commercial Free Zone Act 1994 introduced the concept of the commercial free zone (CFZ), a geographic area in which investors may establish businesses and conduct trade and commerce free of the national customs regime. Any private or public party, or group of parties may establish wholesale and retail businesses on property that it owns or has leased within CFZ, provided that it has secured approval from the chief executive officer to establish such businesses in the designated areas.

The chief executive officer may approve an application if the proposed business enterprise will conduct trade and investment activities such as the operation of a commercial office, warehouse, manufacturing, the provision of insurance services, financial services, banking services or offshore financial services, and other professional or related activities.

No licence shall be required for the sale of goods or services provided within a CFZ. However, businesses that operate within the national customs territory will not be permitted to operate within a CFZ.

Merchandise warehoused in a CFZ may be wholesaled or retailed for the following:

  • sales to diplomats of other countries who are exempt from payment of duties;
  • sales to ships that dock at ports in Belize and are destined for other foreign ports;
  • sales for direct export, whether by sea, air or land;
  • entry into national customs territory, provided that the goods are sold wholesale and the import licence is secured and customs duties paid, if required; and
  • entry into national customs territory, provided that the goods are retailed operations that have licences to sell duty-free to residents and non-residents who are leaving the country and have submitted proof of departure.

Export Processing Zone Act

The Export Processing Zone Act was passed in 1992. Under the act, anexport processing zone (EPZ) business is entitled to produce goods and/or services solely for export or sale to buyers who are not residents of Belize.

All of the goods or services sold by an EPZ business enterprise outside the Belize customs territory are exempt from the following:

  • consumption tax;
  • sales tax;
  • excise tax trade turnover; and
  • value added tax.

Any private or public party (or group of parties) may establish an EPZ business on property that it owns or has leased within the zone, provided that it has obtained a certificate of compliance from the EPZ Committee.

Belizean entrepreneurs have ingeniously sought to mesh the advantages of Belize's close proximity to North America (which is just two hours away by aeroplane), its educated bilingual population (both English and Spanish-speaking), its package of offshore services such as the IBC business vehicle and offshore banking, and the benefits of comprehensive tax, duty and exchange control exemptions enjoyed under Belize's EPZ legislation to offer flexible and cost-minimizing e-commerce solutions for businesses operating from within Belize in EPZs. E-commerce parks in these zones provide commercial office space, web development, web and co-located server hosting, leased servers, staff management services, payment solutions, bandwidth up to T-1 connectivity upgradeable and international dialling services at internationally competitive rates.

Future Legislation

The draft Limited Liability Companies Bill has been delayed but its enactment, intended to expand the scope of international financial services, is expected soon.

Comment

From its opportunistic beginnings Belize has established itself as a leading IFS solutions provider. It is understood that a successful offshore jurisdiction depends not only on the boilerplate tax and exchange control exemptions, but also on meeting the varied needs of clients through innovation, expertise and efficiency in the provision of high-quality services at low cost, a commitment to confidentiality, and the maintenance of economic and political stability and independence.

 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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These Terms shall be governed by and construed in accordance with the laws of England and Wales and you irrevocably submit to the exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales to settle any dispute which may arise out of or in connection with these Terms. If you live outside the United Kingdom, English law shall apply only to the extent that English law shall not deprive you of any legal protection accorded in accordance with the law of the place where you are habitually resident ("Local Law"). In the event English law deprives you of any legal protection which is accorded to you under Local Law, then these terms shall be governed by Local Law and any dispute or claim arising out of or in connection with these Terms shall be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts where you are habitually resident.

You may print and keep a copy of these Terms, which form the entire agreement between you and Mondaq and supersede any other communications or advertising in respect of the Service and/or the Website.

No delay in exercising or non-exercise by you and/or Mondaq of any of its rights under or in connection with these Terms shall operate as a waiver or release of each of your or Mondaq’s right. Rather, any such waiver or release must be specifically granted in writing signed by the party granting it.

If any part of these Terms is held unenforceable, that part shall be enforced to the maximum extent permissible so as to give effect to the intent of the parties, and the Terms shall continue in full force and effect.

Mondaq shall not incur any liability to you on account of any loss or damage resulting from any delay or failure to perform all or any part of these Terms if such delay or failure is caused, in whole or in part, by events, occurrences, or causes beyond the control of Mondaq. Such events, occurrences or causes will include, without limitation, acts of God, strikes, lockouts, server and network failure, riots, acts of war, earthquakes, fire and explosions.

By clicking Register you state you have read and agree to our Terms and Conditions