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What Is a Shell Company?

The Panama Papers leak was a global scandal. In one of the biggest data leaks in history, millions of documents revealed that banks, political leaders and wealthy individuals had allegedly hidden billions of dollars in shell companies through a Panama law firm. Reportedly, the scheme also allowed some of the firm’s clients to evade taxes. If you don’t understand what shell companies are, here’s everything you need to know.

Shell Companies: The Basics

A shell company is a business that’s created to hold funds and manage another entity’s financial transactions. Unlike traditional companies, shell corporations don’t have employees and aren’t traded on exchanges. Shell companies neither make money nor provide customers with products or services. In fact, the only normal business practice that shell companies participate in is keeping track of the assets they hold – which usually doesn’t amount to much money.

The Benefits of Shell Companies

What Is a Shell Company?

Business owners and individuals can benefit from shell companies in many ways. For example, a new startup can use a shell corporation to store the money it’s raising before it officially launches. A company that’s preparing to go through a merger or an acquisition can save its assets in a shell company to simplify matters.

Corporations can also use shell companies for security reasons. For instance, a company might create a shell company if it’s operating in an unsafe region or working with an unpopular company that it doesn’t want to be associated with. A shell company can be helpful during the estate planning process if a neutral account is needed to divide a wealthy individual’s assets. Even someone who’s going through a nasty divorce can use a shell company as a way to shield his or her earnings from an ex-spouse.

Shell Companies as Tax Havens

There are also tax benefits to setting up a shell company. Some countries and regions are tax havens, meaning that they are places where certain tax rates (such as income tax rates or corporate tax rates) are extremely low or nonexistent.

Foreign companies can create shell companies in tax havens like Panama and lower their tax bills at home. That’s because by law, some tax havens don’t have to report any tax information, making it possible to defer taxes and hide offshore accounts from the government. Besides Panama, other tax havens include places such as Switzerland, Hong Kong and Belize.

In most parts of the world, shell companies are considered perfectly legal entities. In some cases, shell companies once fully functioning businesses that collapsed or were eventually taken over by other corporations. But, as the Panama Papers leak revealed, shell corporations sometimes operate as illegal vehicles.

Illegal Shell Corporations 

What Is a Shell Company?

Shell companies are often set up to mask the identity of whoever stashes their assets within them. Normally, shell companies have their own addresses . The U.S. requires shell companies to register with the SEC. So while they may seem like regular businesses (at least on paper), in reality they’re only shells.

If you were to try and track down information about a shell company, you would likely come into contact with the business’s managers, who are really just the company’s accountants or attorneys. It might be difficult to find out who actually owns the money inside of the shell corporation.

Occasionally, companies take advantage of the secretive nature of shell companies by participating in illegitimate activities like money laundering. Reportedly, that’s just one of the crimes that the individuals involved in the Panama Papers scandal committed. The leaked documents also revealed that the Mossack Fonseca law firm allegedly set up offshore accounts for people who wanted to avoid paying taxes.

The line between whether shell companies are being used legally or illegally can get blurry. After all, shell companies are quite common. But certain actions – like engaging in fraud, socking away money for drug dealers or collaborating with terrorists – are clearly unlawful.

Final Word

Shell companies are technically legitimate businesses. People create shell companies to manage assets without necessarily revealing the identities of the funds’ owners. For around $900, almost anyone can go online and find a company to help them set up their own shell corporation abroad. That might be a good idea for some individuals, such as people who work or live outside of the U.S.

But as the Panama Papers leak reveals, shell companies’ structure makes them perfect tools for individuals who want to partake in questionable activities.

Tips for Filing Your Taxes

  • Make sure you’re planning ahead. You don’t want to be surprised by how much you owe in taxes. SmartAsset’s tax return calculator can help you figure out how much you’ll owe and how much your refund will be. If you need help planning for tax season, you might want to use SmartAsset’s SmartAdvisor matching tool to get paired with a financial advisor. First you’ll answer a series of questions about your situation and goals. Then the program will narrow down your options from thousands of advisors to three fiduciaries who suit your needs. You can then read their profiles to learn more about them, interview them on the phone or in person and choose who to work with in the future. This allows you to find a good fit while the program does much of the hard work for you.
  • Save costs by filing your taxes on your own. These are some of the best free tax software options available. If you need more options or have a more complex tax situation, these are the best overall tax software options for 2018. The IRS also offers a Free File program for taxpayers below a certain income threshold.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/GeorgeBurba, ©iStock.com/themacx, ©iStock.com/bjdlzx

Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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