Year: 2016

Home / 2016
Panama Papers – 10 reasons people use a tax haven

Panama Papers – 10 reasons people use a tax haven

Panama Papers – 10 reasons people use a tax haven

This week’s big financial and political story is the 11 million documents obtained from a law firm in a tax haven – Panama – known as The Panama Papers.  These documents are ticking time-bombs for many of the people named.  They are wealthy people, heads of state, politicians and people in business.  Many have good reason for not wanting their offshore affairs plastered all over the media.  These range from embarrassment to risk of prosecution and imprisonment.

It is only right to point out that there is nothing illegal for most people to set up accounts, companies or business structures in somewhere they do not live. The legality can vary according to which country you live in or pay your taxes in.

Since there is so much interest in what motivates such actions, I will list 10 of the main reasons below.

1. Tax evasion (the illegal one)

This used to be the main reason people put money abroad – to hide it from their tax-man. These days such people find it hard to spend the money hiding abroad – ie to spend it without leaving a trace.2

2. Hiding the proceeds of crime

This could be bribes, robbery, drug-dealing or other illicit activities.  Tax havens often allow you to put your money into companies there with little checking on how you came by the money.

3. Tax avoidance (within the law)

Individuals and large international businesses have the legal right to arrange their affairs to reduce their tax bills.  As we know from Google and Starbucks, this is often done by routing transactions and the associated costs via low-tax countries.  These activities are within the laws of the countries involved, but have become the subject of public ridicule.

4. Spouse/partner issues

Either before marriage or once a marriage is on the rocks, a spouse may try to get some money off-side.  This is so they don’t have to share it in future divorce proceedings. Putting it into a foreign country, or maybe a foreign company with nominee directors can disguise whose money it is. See this story.

5. Currency restrictions

Many countries limit the amount of money you can transfer out of the country.  Money may be smuggled out and then lodged in a tax-haven to keep it hidden.  Or if your business has income Worldwide, then you might send some of your money straight to the tax haven rather than sending it home.

6. Bribes and commissions

I think we will see from the Panama Papers that a number of the people with money controlled via Panama were receiving money they couldn’t admit to at home.  They may have been serving politicians, sports administrators or business-people.  The money may be bribes for turning a blind eye, or commissions for securing a lucrative deal.

7. Valuable property transactions

People owning large houses, planes and yachts often have them held in other names, and registered in other countries.  Often using companies or trusts based in tax havens.  This used to be popular with expensive London properties to save on stamp duty when selling.

8. Hiding assets from creditors

If someone realises their business is going down the tubes, they may stash some money overseas for a rainy day.  This could leave them funds to spend should they be made bankrupt.  Of course this is illegal as well as immoral – if you are declared bankrupt you must declare all your assets, no matter where you have them.

9. Hiding your name

Offshore tax havens make it easy to hide your connection to money or property.  The use of nominee directors is common – where some locals are paid to be the directors or trustees.  They actually do what you tell them to, but your name doesn’t appear. (Remember ‘The Night Manager’?)  I expect the Panama Papers will include correspondence linking the people with the money to those who are fronting-up the companies or trusts.

10. Secrecy and commercial confidentiality

The secrecy offered by tax havens is attractive to many wealthy people and big businesses.  It may allow them to bid for or invest in projects without the person behind the money being known.  Sometimes there will be sensible and legitimate commercial reasons for this. I suspect however that some of the other 10 factors are also involved when people use these tax havens.


The Panama Papers story has been prepared over the past 8 months, and the repercussions will last for years.  As the information comes out and turns to confessions and prosecutions, we can expect this to be the gift that keeps on giving.

VIDEO on this story – see here

The #PanamaPapers story is being run by The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – see


Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – or 028 9080 6080.

Dividend tax changes from 2016/17

Dividend tax changes from 2016/17

Nasty extra dividend tax hits owners of small companies.

April 2016 sees the start of a new dividend tax regime which will affect the owners of most of the UK’s small limited companies. Many will be hundreds or thousands of pounds worse off.

Individual investors who own shares can also be affected, but only if their total dividends in the year exceed £5,000.  So that means a fairly small number of people.

The Chancellor George Osborne has introduced this new dividend tax to balance out the tax bills suffered by people who have the same income, but receive it in different ways.

My video at explains the change, and read on for further details.

Take 3 categories of people:

  • Jenny runs her own limited company. It can make £50K per year and she can take a mix of salary and dividends.
  • Roger is a sole trader who makes profits of £50K per year.
  • Andrew is an employee and his salary is £50K.

Prior to April 2016 Jenny could arrange her dividend/salary mix to make a big saving, mainly on National Insurance Contributions (NIC)

If we worked out the 2015/16 total tax and National Insurance bills (including Jenny’s company tax) there would be widely varying bills, as follows:

  • Jenny’s percentage of the £50K taken in taxes could be as low as 18% (or up to 33% if she took all her money as salary, against the advice of her accountant.)
  • Self-employed Roger would lose some 25% of his profits in tax and NIC.
  • Andrew, the employee would lose 27%.

Why the changes for 2016/17 and beyond?

With previous governments having encouraged businesses to form up as limited companies, now the Chancellor has decided to take away one of the main advantages – the ability to juggle your salary and dividend split to save some money.  He wants self-employed and limited companies to have a more similar tax regime.  I do not need to get into the morality of the old or new approaches, I must merely warn those with large dividends about the new regime. Before I go into the detail, let’s see the effect of the changes in April 2017.

How do Jenny, Roger and Andrew fare in 2016/17?

  • Jenny’s best case split of salary and dividend raises her tax bills to about 21%, up from 18%. (If she took all salary there would be no change at 33%, but that would be daft.)
  • Roger, being self-employed, is unaffected at 25%.
  • Meanwhile employee Andrew is also unaffected at 27% to the government.

So we can see that the Chancellor’s measure is closing the gap in the tax regimes between someone being self-employed and choosing to set up their business as a limited company. Jenny faces a few thousand more in tax each year due to the dividend tax.

The 2015/16 dividend tax regime in summary

Up to 5 April 2016 dividends, to the basic rate taxpayer, were simply treated as if they had already been taxed.

Higher rate taxpayers paid extra tax on dividends – 25% of the net they received.

This meant that the owner of a small company could take out a salary of say £10,000 and dividends of say £28,000 and pay no tax and only minimal National Insurance.  The company would pay tax, but taken together the company and owner would be better off that if they had just been self-employed.

Working out if you were close to the limit to start paying higher-rate tax was confusing.  Net dividends you received had to be grossed up.  Every £90 of dividend was treated as £100 gross.  The gross dividends plus your other income dictated whether you had some higher rate tax to pay.

The 2016/17 measures in detail

Dividend income will no longer have any form of tax credit to confuse the sums.  What you get is regarded as the gross dividend.

If your dividends in the year are £5,000 or less there will be no income tax to pay. This £5,000 is called your Dividend Allowance.

More reading and some examples are on the HMRC website at

If your dividends exceed £5K, then those dividends above the allowance will be taxed.

The tax rates will depend on whether your total income exceeds the basic rate threshold. (£43,000 in 2016/17)

  • The starting rate for dividend tax is 7.5% on dividends over £5,000.
  • Any dividends which push you into the higher rate threshold will be taxed at 32.5%.
  • People earning over £150,000 will have a dividend tax rate of 38.1%.

Tax planning points for those in business

If thinking about setting up a limited company, then the decision is much less clear-cut than it used to be. You might decide just to be a sole trader or some form of partnership.

Limited companies will still be attractive if you can make a lot of money but do not need to take it all out of the company each year. They will also still provide some protection from risking your house and savings if something goes wrong or the business is sued.

Advice on the best form to use for your business is now more important than ever.

If you already operate through your own limited company then look carefully at dividend levels, amount you need to take out, and pension contributions.

Tax planning points for people with high dividends but are not in business

This new tax makes it much more attractive to reduce your dividend income to under £5,000, and one way to do this is to move your shareholdings into an ISA.  Dividend income in an ISA is tax-free.

Ba careful of Capital Gains Tax if selling a lot of shares or ones which have risen well since you bought them.  If worried, then paying for a chat with a tax expert might be worthwhile.

In conclusion

Anyone who gets more than £5,000 in dividend income will be affected by this from 6 April 2016.  They need to know what tax they will owe, and how to declare the income to HMRC.  They also need to set some money aside to pay the bill when it arrives.

VIDEO: See also my video on this subject at


Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – or 028 9080 6080.
Will you die without a will? David Bowie knew better

Will you die without a will? David Bowie knew better

Die without a will and you leave a mess.

David Bowie left a will.  Because of this, and his years of tax planning, his multi-million pound estate is reckoned to face very little Inheritance Tax.

After over 20 years of practice, and some personal as well as professional experience, my article today is to highlight why you must make a will – and make the appointment this month.

When we hear that an appalling 54% of us die without having made a will (intestate) it shows that people do not realise just how important this simple matter is.

Make a will, and use a solicitor. Not expensive.
Make a will, and use a solicitor. It’s not costly.

Here are ten tips gleaned over the years:

  1. Do you want the government rules to dictate who gets your money and property when you die?  This is what happens if you die intestate.  Then the government rules set down who gets what.  It might not be how you want it.  Do you want to hand that much power to the government?
  2. Don’t assume you can relax because ‘sure everything will go to my spouse.’  Firstly this may not be correct. It depends on where in the UK you live and how much you were worth.  Secondly – and this is important – you don’t know that you will die first.  Whoever is left on their own – if they die without a will then the intestacy rules will be very important.
  3. Based on the above point it is vital that both parties to a marriage or civil partnership set out their wishes on death.  And of course is you are not in either of these, the ‘other half’ will get nothing on your death if you die intestate.
  4. Making a will is easy.  I made my first one in my early twenties.  By making one you achieve two things.  Firstly you have set out who should get what.  Secondly if your circumstances, or opinions, change, you have a clear incentive to get down to the solicitor and change your wishes.  A simple will should cost no more than a couple of hundred pounds.
  5. Don’t use a will kit you download or buy in a shop.  It is true that you could use one and it may end up being a valid will.  However a lot of these are faulty in some way, and this is usually discovered when it is too late – you are dead!  Then the cost of sorting things out will be far greater than a few quid given to your local solicitor to make a proper will.
  6. A witness to your signature cannot benefit from the estate.  That would make the will invalid.  However the executor (the person you ask to handle tidying up your estate) CAN benefit.
  7. Intestacy – who inherits what is set out in a handy ready reckoner at  Note the rules are different according to which part of the UK the deceased was living in.  Apart from Scotland, if the estate is worth no more than £250,000 then the spouse gets everything, but MUST live for 28 days after the first death.
  8. Your executors are the people who must tidy up your esatate and distribute it according to your wishes.  They do not have to be legally-qualified.  Do NOT have your solicitor or accountant as one of your executors.  They may make a very convincing argument about how sensible it is.  From very painful personal experience I can state that this is a bad idea.  It means that solicitor or professional advisor must be involved in the handling of the estate, because you have named them.  This could mean higher fees than necessary.  Far better is to have other trusted friends or relatives as executors.  Tell them by all means get legal help with the job.  But get a fee quote from your solicitor, and get a couple of others too.  That way you can ensure not too much money goes in fees.
  9. Inheritance Tax (IHT) planning can be important, especially if your estate as an individual or a couple exceeds £650,000.  However do not let concerns over this tax prevent you from making a will.  Get that first one made, even if you later change it when you have someone look at the IHT situation.
  10. Make sure your nearest and dearest know where the will is located – the safe of your solicitor is a good idea.  Also tell them who your executors will be (though you don’t have to tell everyone that).

Why did I say make your solicitor appointment this month?  Simples.  To avoid further procrastinating.  Get on with it.

Death is too important to leave to chance! Make that appointment.

Adrian Huston, a former tax inspector, is a director of Belfast tax and accountancy firm Huston & Co – or 028 9080 6080.