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If someone’s holding “bearer” shares in some offshore company, I assume they’re up to no good (probably trying to cheat their ex’ or not pay taxes). And I’m not the only one who feels that way.

From an asset protection standpoint, the main advantage of bearer shares is the supposed ability to quickly and anonymously transfer ownership of your shares (just pick it up and walk away). That may be well and good while you’re alive, but if you drop dead, figuring out who owns your shares won’t be easy, as the litigants in the Griem case found out.

Griem v. Becker, — So.2d —-, 2009 WL 454517 (Fla. 3d DCA Feb 25, 2009):

At the probate court level the judge bought the argument that when it comes to bearer shares in a BVI company, possession = ownership, period, end of story. Which is a fair assumption, and what I would have guessed before reading the linked-to opinion. Not so, says the 3d DCA, in an opinion that’s a road map for anyone who ever has to deal with this issue in the future. The two big take-away points from this case are:

Florida law does NOT control the ownership issue:

The appellee relies on section 673.2011(1), Florida Statutes (2005), which states, “[I]f an instrument is payable to bearer, it may be negotiated by transfer of possession alone.” . . . This reliance, however, is misplaced. Under the UCC, “instruments” are unconditional promises or orders to pay a fixed amount of money and are addressed in Article 3 (chapter 673 of the Florida Statutes), as distinguished from “securities,” addressed in Article 8 (chapter 678 of the Florida Statutes). The shares in Conti-Tech are securities. Under section [678.1101], the local law of the issuer’s jurisdiction, BVI, governs claims regarding transfer of the Conti-Tech shares.

Determining ownership of bearer shares is a fact-intensive exercise:

On appeal the 3d DCA reversed the probate court’s summary judgment order expressly rejecting the argument that possession is “ten tenths of the law” when it comes to figuring out who owns bearer shares. Ownership of bearer shares turns out to be way more fact intensive than most of us would have guessed.

Simply stated, the mere possession of these BVI share certificates does not immunize the appellee from investigation or claim by the personal representative. The appellee’s affidavit raises more questions than it answers: since Conti-Tech had a U.S. securities account, did it file U.S. income tax returns in 2003, 2004, and 2005, potentially providing evidence linking the company to its shareholder? If Conti-Tech’s shareholder received any part of its income, would that not have been disclosed on his or her U.S. income tax return? FN6 Did Conti-Tech’s memorandum authorize bearer shares? Wouldn’t Merrill Lynch, Miami, have required a copy of the memorandum as part of the account-opening documentation for Conti-Tech’s securities account? Wouldn’t Conti-Tech’s registered agent and the depositary custodians have records revealing the beneficial holders and transfers? How could Becker have obtained her appointment as director effective over seven months after Mr. Griem’s death unless she delivered documentary evidence of her ownership of the shares to the registered agent of Conti-Tech before that? Does the registered agent have other certificates evidencing transfers of ownership or custodians in effect before Mr. Griem’s death?