I have always been one to try doing things on my own, without professional help. It is a trait inherited from my father, for better or worse. The tendency is borne of frugality and the willingness to do the research and take on the challenge of learning bureaucratic processes. For instance, I have always filled out my own tax returns without the help of a consultant even before there was software to ease that task. More and more, however, I am more inclined to seek help from the pros with regard to legal and financial undertakings.
Though I am certain that the entire enterprise of relocating to another country could be accomplished on one’s own, I could not recommend it. It is such a complicated endeavor that along the way you have to place trust in a number of professionals in order to avoid hassles down the road. If the country to which you move has a different culture, language and legal system, then hiring help is essential.Here are three situations where you would be wise to get the best help you can find.
Even if you do not plan to become a legal resident of your new country, you need to know what the ramifications are of living there as a tourist. For instance, many people reside permanently in Costa Rica as so-called perpetual tourists by leaving the country every 90 days to renew their visa, which is not without some risk. Laws can change quickly regarding re-entry visas, or you may be denied re-entry or only get a 30-day visa upon your return.
If you do plan to become a resident, then, typically, this is a process you need to thoroughly research and begin well before you contact the company shipping your household goods. There are always multiple types of residency, each with their own rules, income requirements, work permits, etc. It can take a lot of thought to decide which one is best for your situation. Also, consider the expense and waiting times not only for your initial residency, but also for renewals.
Taxes are never simple, unfortunately, even for individuals with only a single fixed income. Not only are you still on the hook for taxes as a U.S. citizen, but you are probably faced with a confusing array of assessments in your adopted country. In Costa Rica, there are at least half a dozen taxes we pay throughout the year, none of which has coincident dates. None of them is paid in the same place or in the same manner.
If you are going to run a business or obtained residency via investments in the country, you have an even more knotty situation. In this case, since you are likely dealing with large sums of money and contracts, you especially want the help of a good lawyer and accountant.
Buying and Selling Property
You have undoubtedly heard the advice that you should rent before buying property when you move to a new country. The main impetus behind that idea is that you want to become acquainted well with different areas of the country. If any is not to your liking, it is much easier to relocate if you do not own a home there. It is a good idea from legal, tax and financial perspectives too.
Despite the yard-high stack of documents that most U.S. homebuyers sign when purchasing a home, the process for buying real estate in other countries can be even more tortuous especially if it is in a foreign language. All I can say is, “Children, don’t try this at home!”
Buying a business or real estate in a foreign country is certainly an area where you will need professional help from lawyers and accountants. You may also find that even simple transactions involving property, such as cars, also require a lawyer. Less developed countries often do not have sophisticated, secure database systems in place and thus, must rely on people, stamps, seals, verifications and re-verifications to create a chain of trust.
How to Find Trustworthy and Competent Professional Help
All of this boils down to the question of finding people you can rely on to represent your interests and who will not cheat you. That can be much easier to say than to do. In all such quests, there is one basic rule you should adhere to: acquire, at a minimum, three solid references for the person or firm you are researching and follow up with each of them. Another obvious bit of advice is never to use the same lawyer that is representing the other side of whatever transaction you are engaged in. It is tempting for simplicity’s sake, but unwise.
In less developed countries, the equivalent of the bar association may not be as stringent as what you are used to. In Costa Rica, it is a rule of thumb that approximately half the lawyers here have let their licenses lapse, but still do business. If you start with a fact like that in mind, then you realize how important references are. Even with high recommendations, find another lawyer who can check with the country’s registry to make sure your lawyer really is legally able to practice law, or do that yourself.
Do not look for one-stop legal assistance. Most lawyers can handle simple transactions such as buying a car, but do not use the same one for, say, your residency application. The latter is a specialty and full of pitfalls if not done correctly. Likewise, for your business use a lawyer who specializes in that area, not the one who handled your home purchase. Legal advice diversification keeps you less exposed compared to having all your trust in one person.
Often, legal firms have close ties with a specific accounting agency. Just because your references research resulted in a thumbs-up for the legal firm, do not assume that the accounting agency must be equally competent. Give the accounting firm the same thorough examination that you gave the legal beagles. Especially pay attention to their fee schedule, and if there are annual fees for keeping your accounts open. Accounting functions are often less critical and more driven by the calendar, so this is one area where it can pay to shop by price.
For Many Things You Can Still Go It on Your Own
Once you have settled into your new surroundings for a year or so, much of the veil of mystery will fall away from how business is conducted in your country. You will find out how to do many things by yourself, if you are so inclined. Costa Rica, for example, relies heavily on a central document registry, which has branch offices around the country. Most transactions have at least a partial path through that registry to obtain certain verification documents. There is no reason you cannot obtain them yourself with a little time and minimal Spanish, and save yourself at least tens of dollars each time.
Accountants often charge a fee of around $50 to pay a single tax on your behalf. By trial and error, I have discovered the processes for paying all my taxes, the worst of which takes about an hour and a half. In my retirement, $33 per hour is good pay!
Even if you are a die-hard do-it-yourselfer when it comes to legal and accounting tasks, you may find yourself easing up on that a bit in your new home. After all, in countries such as Costa Rica, the cost of good legal and accounting help is far less than in the States.
Retirement is a time, at least partially, to relax and let others pick up that slack. You might find it better to spend your time doing the research to find people you can trust instead of trying to tackle the foreign maze of your country’s bureaucracy alone.
by Casey Bahr.
Casey writes part-time on a variety of topics, including his family’s move and their ongoing adventures in Costa Rica, chronicled in his blog, A Dull Roar. In addition, he authors two other blogs and contributes articles to Hubpages about do-it-yourself projects, science and technology topics, amateur radio, life and humor.
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