Floating Palace, Indeed!
Ernie Neve, CPA
September 12, 2018
This week's story is a briny chowder of petty vandalism, tax avoidance, partisan posturing, and flat-out misinformation. There's probably something in here to offend everyone. So buckle your seat belts and get ready for a ride!
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been one of Donald Trump's most controversial cabinet officials since barely surviving Senate confirmation thanks to the Vice-President's tie-breaker. It doesn't help that she's also one of Trump's wealthiest appointees. She and her husband Dick, son of Amway founder Richard DeVos, are worth an estimated $1.3 billion. And the DeVos clan, befitting their place on the Forbes 400 list, enjoy the usual collections of homes, jets, and ten (ten!) yachts that you would expect a family of billionaires to maintain.
Last month, news broke that someone had untied Betsy's 164-foot yacht Seaquest from its dock on Lake Erie. That's maybe newsworthy on its own — the vessel cost $40 million, which means damage could have been significant, and Lake Erie isn't exactly known for random drifting superyachts. But what really drew fire was the news that DeVos, who of course serves a President dedicated to "America First," was flying a Cayman Islands flag on her vessel. The partisan outrage machine instantly kicked into gear, howling that DeVos had avoided over $2 million in tax with the move.
Why would a Michigan billionaire, whose husband actually ran for Governor of that state, register her floating palace on a tiny flyspeck of an island 1,700 miles away? If she registers Seaquest in Michigan, she's potentially subject to the Wolverine State's 6% use tax, or $2.4 million. She's subject to U.S. safety and inspection standards. And her crew is subject to U.S. labor requirements. Registering the yacht in the Caymans lets her meet a considerably less-demanding set of standards. (Think "island time," but apply that concept to maritime rules and regulations.)
So DeVos is a high-class hypocrite, right, exploiting loopholes to save millions and cheat the kids she's sworn to serve? Well, if so, she's hardly alone. Sailing under a "flag of convenience" has a long and sometimes-even-honorable history. Early American merchantmen flew under the British flag to avoid Barbary pirates. And if you've ever taken a cruise, you've done it yourself. Take Royal Caribbean's brand-new $1.4 billion Symphony of the Seas. She's the world's largest cruise ship, with robot bartenders, 22 restaurants, 24 swimming pools. And she sails under a Bahamas flag.
What's more, it turns out the headlines blaming Betsy for registering "a fleet of yachts" outside the country are, to use a loaded term, fake news. For one thing, it turns out Seaquest isn't even Betsy's boat. It's actually owned by a company called R.D.V. International Marine, a subsidiary of the DeVos family office. And the family's other nine yachts — the Blue Sky, Quantum Racing, Delta Victor, Reflection, Attitude, Sterling, Windquest, Zorro, and De Lus — are registered to ports in Michigan, Delaware, and Florida.
What's our bottom line for this week? (Besides "don't believe everything you read"?) The DeVos family may be a little showy with their money. But they didn't get to be billionaires by wasting money on taxes they didn't have to pay. So call us when you're ready to start building your fleet, and see what we can help you buy!