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Thursday, November 29, 2007

In Cerro Azul - Panama, a Home in the Mountains


Tito Herrera for The New York Times
The ground floor of the three-bedroom, three-bath house features tile floors, hardwood doors, wide windows and a stone fireplace.



Tito Herrera for The New York Times
Rachelle and Ben Smith have owned this home in Cerro Azul, near Panama City, since March 2006. It was one of the original residences built in the 500-home development and is about 2,600 feet up a mountain.

In Panama, a Home in the Mountains

By KEVIN BRASS
ALTOS DE CERRO AZUL, Panama

December 2, 2007


The terrace of Rachelle and Ben Smith's home is one of the few places on earth with views of both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. On clear days, they sit there and watch the ships line up to enter the Panama Canal.

The area is also something of a bird paradise. Ornithologists regularly lead tours through the valleys, hoping for glimpses of the toucans, migratory birds and rare hummingbirds that regularly visit the treetops in the Smiths' backyard.

"The rope across there is for the monkeys," Mr. Smith said, pointing to ropes strung through the tall pines around the house, near platforms covered with sliced bananas and bird feed.

The couple paid $150,000 in March 2006 for their three-bedroom, three-bath home. The house is situated on two acres of land, and it is a little more than an hour's drive from Panama City.

In 2003, after Mr. Smith ­ who goes by "Smitty" ­ sold his plumbing business in Jacksonville, Fla., the couple spent three years living on a 38-foot sailboat called the Seawolf. But two years ago, while they were visiting relatives in the United States, their boat was destroyed by Hurricane Wilma.

Their initial search for a new home focused on the Caribbean and Costa Rica. But then they met Marie Farrell, a Panama native and an agent with ReMax in the Jacksonville area.

Fast-growing Panama is generally considered an easy place for foreigners to buy property, compared with other countries. English is commonly spoken, the United States dollar is the accepted currency, there are no restrictions on owning land in most areas and the government offers a long list of friendly discounts for pensionados, expatriates who have settled in Panama.

For the Smiths, Panama had an extra appeal ­ no hurricanes. "We were sick and tired of running from hurricanes," said Mrs. Smith, 52.

Mrs. Farrell first showed the couple properties in beach resort areas, where a four-bedroom condo with 230 square meters (2,475 square feet) of living space sells for about $375,000. But then Mrs. Smith mentioned their love of birds. "That was it," Ms. Farrell said. "I knew they wanted the mountains."

Mountain property in Panama is much less expensive than the coast and offers lush tropical landscapes, albeit without the sandy beaches. A new three-bedroom house with 225 square meters (2,400 square feet) of living space in Boquete, an area in the north popular with expatriates, sells for around $265,000.

Cerro Azul, the community where the Smiths bought their home, was first developed a generation ago as a retreat for wealthy Panamanians, Mrs. Farrell said. Most of the land in the area is owned by the Melo family, which made its fortune in Panama's poultry industry.

Today the narrow two-lane road that goes up the mountain is still lined with well-tended chicken ranches. Children on the side of the road sell bundles of nance, the little yellow fruit common in the local valleys.

Near the top of the mountain, where the elevation is 2,600 feet, there is a gate and security guard at the entrance to the development; it is another 15 minutes on a narrow winding road to the Smiths' house.

Although there are 500 homes on the property, there are only 50 full-time residents ­ mostly Americans and Canadians ­ plus a country club, a pool, tennis and basketball courts and a small restaurant. Many of the houses are empty or run-down; wealthy Panama City residents these days prefer the cool mountain air of the fast-growing resort areas in the north.

The Smiths' house was one of the original "Melo homes," owned by the family, and was clearly well maintained over the years. Beyond the $13,000 that they spent on a garage and the terrace, including a concrete barbecue, they have done little work on the 2,200-square-foot house, which they bought furnished.

The ground floor has tile floors, hardwood doors, wide windows and a stone fireplace. The second story has the feel of a cozy loft, with dark wood floors and a small veranda with panoramic views off the main bedroom, where Mrs. Smith has put her favorite rocking chair.

"The shower sold Smitty on the house," Mrs. Smith said, showing off the master bathroom's wide window and its views to the Pacific and Panama City. "The very first thing we did was get a 40-gallon propane hot water heater."

Shipping their possessions ­ including a car and assorted dogs and cats ­ to Panama proved to be easy. But it took months of bureaucratic hurdles to gain admittance for their parrot, Morgan, due to concerns about avian flu. "No one knew the law," said Ms. Farrell, who ended up as the Smiths' lead bird negotiator.

Since moving in, Mr. Smith, 60, has taken the lead in the garden. He put in 40 coffee plants and assorted pineapple, orange, banana and palm trees, as well as the begonias that line the circular driveway. He starts out every day with what he calls a perimeter check. "We have several types of ants that would take over if we let them," he said.

A few nights earlier they had spotted a black panther ambling across the back lawn. Snakes of various sizes and shapes, as well as tarantulas and scorpions, are common. At night they can hear the howler monkeys in the valley.

Although both spoke little Spanish when they arrived, they have found it easy to live in Panama, where many of the locals speak at least a bit of English. They say they rarely go into Panama City, preferring the markets in nearby towns and the small open-air family restaurants in the area, where they can feast on plates of rice and beans for $3. And "it's 32 cents for a beer," Mr. Smith added.

They spend their days working on projects, hiking, and teaching their Australian shepherd puppies how to play with a Frisbee. Several hammocks are strategically positioned around the gardens.

With a collection of 200 DVDs, satellite TV and high-speed Internet, Mrs. Smith says they never feel isolated, although their cellphone reception is poor. Visits from their 7 children and 13 grandchildren help.

And there are always the birds. As the seasons change, there are always new varieties passing through, including migratory orioles from North America, and the hummingbird feeders are swarming with unusual breeds. "If you put a hibiscus flower in your ear," Mr. Smith said, "they'll come right up to you."

Full text in http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/02/greathomesanddestinations/28gh-panama.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Legal fees for probate cases

> 1) Regarding wills in Panama, I recently heard that a lawyer who
> administers a will for someone can legally receive a percentage of the
>
estate - 15 percent of an estate valued at less than $50,000 and 10
> percent of an estate with a value of more than $50,000. GASP!!! Is
> this true? (I am also told that a holographic will - without a lawyer
> - is legal in Panama, but that's the subject for another discussion.)
Legally he can ONLY IF no other fee arrangement has been previously made.
That is the rate set in the 2001 Schedule of Fees in http://www.organojudicial.gob.pa/IDONEIDAD/tarifas.htm for 4. PROCESO DE SUCESIÓN TESTAMENTARIA O INTESTADA (probate litigation). Unfortunately, nobody has bothered to translate this document into English.
However, hourly fees from US$50 or up may be PREVIOUSLY arranged IN WRITING as listed in CONSULTAS Y CONCEPTOS SOLICITADAS A ABOGADOS O FIRMAS DE ABOGADOS., as well as other rates.
Lawyers also can recommend asset protection arrangements such as foundations and trusts which, when properly made, can help you avoid the cost of probate. Well-drafted documents are specially important when transferring real estate and bank accounts to the next generation, since government or bank officials may have to act according to the documents as they are written.

Panama green card has another color

Unlike the US where a single application results in a work permit and a visa, Panama requires two separate applications for a work permit (issued by the Directorate of Employment of the Labor Ministry) and a visa (issued by the Directorate of Immigration of the Government Ministry).

The number of work permits is of 6, which requirements are listed in the Labor Ministry website. As a general rule, a foreign worker can apply for a permit if the company which sponsors him/her would have no more than 1 foreign worker for every 10 Panamanian workers if the application was approved. The ratio is raised to 1 foreign worker for every 15 workers if the foreign worker has a technician permit.

Foreign spouses of Panamanians are exempt from this requirement.

Every year the permit must be renewed and proof of the immigration visa renewal must be included.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Tropical probate drama tests Panama's judicial system

Friday, Nov. 02, 2007

Postcard: Panama By Tim Padgett

Kids play and hang out during school hours in La Caseta in the barrio of Curundu in Panama City, Panama, on October 24, 2007.
Ivan Kaskinsky / WPN for TIME

These are heady days for tiny Panama. It is undertaking a massive expansion of the Panama Canal, luring billions of dollars in maritime and high-tech investment that could make it the Hong Kong of the Americas. But here's the other side: in the past few months, scores of toddlers have died of malnutrition in villages around the country. More than half of Panamanian children under 5 are at risk of suffering the same fate. That's why, say friends of Wilson (Chuck) Lucom, who died last year at 88, the eccentric U.S. millionaire left as much as $50 million in his will for poor children's charities in Panama. It's the largest private gift ever made here. The will doesn't single out which relief organizations will be recipients. But, as the director of a charity that may benefit says, it could have a "tremendous impact on our ability to save these children."
That is, if the kids ever see the money. Lucom's widow Hilda, 83, the frail matriarch of Panama's prominent Arias family (a clan that has produced two of Panama's Presidents), with the support of her children is battling to get the will declared invalid. They say the will's U.S. executor, Florida tax attorney Richard Lehman, concocted the charity donation so he could split the money with other Lucom cronies.
Read the full text in http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1680177,00.html


More on the story.. Litigios y disputas by Tomás A. Cabal
http://www.elsiglo.com/siglov2/Imprimir.php?fechaz=18-01-2007&idnews=33137

La muerte del empresario norteamericano Wilson C. Lucom ha desatado una serie de juicios y litigios sobre el destino de la enorme fortuna que dejó al momento de morir. De acuerdo a documentos aportados por los abogados de Lucom World Peace Limited (Fiduciaria de Fundación Wilson C. Lucom Trust Fund), han tenido que interponer una demanda en los tribunales de Panamá y los Estados Unidos contra la viuda del conocido empresario para asegurar que se cumpla con su testamento. De por medio están depósitos bancarios que suman millones de dólares, apartamentos, residencias y la Hacienda Santa Mónica que por muchos años fue propiedad de la familia Arias...






EN PRO DE LA NIÑEZ. Testamento by Richard Koster
http://mensual.prensa.com/mensual/contenido/2007/08/01/hoy/opinion/1066397.html

... Pero vamos a hablar de algo bueno, y de alguien que apreciaba Panamá y que tenía conciencia social. Se trata del señor Wilson Lucom, un norteamericano que vino aquí hace unos 10 ó 15 años y quedó víctima del embrujo que Panamá tiene.
Lucom nació pobre y se hizo multimillonario. Se casó dos veces, pero nunca tuvo hijos. Al venir a Panamá compró la Hacienda Santa Mónica de los herederos de Gilberto Arias Guardia. Hizo amistades coclesanas y llegó a conocer rincones como Tobaré y La Pintada. Le preocupaba la falta de oportunidad para jóvenes en el campo y el juegovivo de la política criolla. Se preocupaba por Panamá. Murió el año pasado a los 88 y dejó gran parte de su fortuna, es decir, muchos millones, a "los niños con necesidades en Panamá"...


Panamanian Arias oligarchs after the Lucom millions
By Julie Kay
http://mensual.prensa.com/mensual/contenido/2007/08/01/hoy/opinion/1066397.html

...But in the years before his death last June at age 88, Lucom embraced a new cause — helping impoverished children in Panama. His will left a big chunk of his estate, valued at $30 million to $50 million, to charities that help abandoned children and children with AIDS.
Even though Lucom’s will generously provided for his widow, Hilda “Toni” Arias Lucom, 83, a member of one of Panama’s most powerful families, she and several of her children and relatives are seeking to block the money from going to the charities. They want to invalidate the will and make Hilda the sole beneficiary.
They also seek to remove Lucom’s longtime tax lawyer, solo Palm Beach attorney Richard S. Lehman, as executor. Chuck Lucom had no biological children of his own or surviving close blood relatives.
Lucom’s will set off a nasty international legal battle in Palm Beach County — where Lucom had millions in bank accounts — and in Panama. The case raises questions about whether wealthy Americans who retire to Panama or other Latin American countries can count on having their wills and other legal documents enforced in foreign courts....

Friday, November 9, 2007

Immigrant Visa and Residence Permit granted to foreigners married to a Panamanian citizen

Immigrant Visa and Residence Permit granted to aliens married to a Panamanian citizen.
Visa Code VI-2

Who may apply to this visa?

This visa is granted to those foreigners that are married to a Panamanian citizen and live normally together, stably and continuously with their spouse. The interested party must prove to the National Directorate of Immigration and Naturalization, that it is a real marriage and not one of “convenience” neither a “false” marriage arranged in order to obtain the migratory status. The person that by means of a false marriage tries to obtain a migratory status can be subject of penal actions, furthermore, the request will be denied or the granted permit will be revoked, and the immediate departure of the country by the foreigner will be requested. In addition, it is informed that the omission or act of providing false information in the Sworn Background Declaration can have legal implications, and the verification of this issue is a reason for denying the visa requested as well as the resident permit.

Processing time frame: 2 to 4 months until it is granted, depending on the date and the results of the marriage interview, and other necessary admissible evidence.


REQUIREMENTS:

Foreigner

At the presentation of the documents, a three months temporary carnet is issued and at the time of the approval of the request a provisional one year permanent carnet is issued. The costs of the carnets will be paid by the interest party as well as the B/10.00 fiscal stamp for those foreigners’ citizens that require visa.

Power of Attorney and requests through a lawyer [Power of Attorney must include the general information of the interested party company (exact address, name, nationality, name and parent’s nationality, telephone numbers and e-mail address. The general information related to the lawyer must be specified (office’s address, telephone’s numbers, fax’s number and e-mail address). The general information of the attached checks (check number, bank name, date and amount) listing and identification of the attached documents and expounded the real and legal facts of the request. The Power of Attorney must be personally presented before the National Directorate of Immigration and Naturalization officer or with an authenticated note before a Public Notary. The power of attorney, as well as the request must have a B/4.00 per page legal stamp or postage (Four Balboas per page)

Certified or cashier’s check in the amount of B/ 100.00 in favour of “Tesoro Nacional” (National Treasury).

Good Health Medical Certificate [: issued within the three (3) months prior to the presentation date (it must have date, signature and seal with the doctor’s name, including the code and registration number of the physician.]

Penal and police record issued by the previous country of residence of the petitioner within the last two years, ( if the interested party has been in Panama for the last two or more years on a consecutive time, this document will not be necessary).

Passport issued by country of origin [... with a minimum of six months validity time]

Complete copy of passport

Two (2) carnet size photos [...updated (no hats or veils and front face)

Marriage certificate issued by the Civil Registry [... this must be issued within the previous six months before the date of presentation of the document and must include the proper fiscal stamps. If the marriage occurred abroad it must be properly registered at the Civil Register of Panama]

Birth certificate of the Panamanian spouse issued by the Civil Registry [... this must be issued within the previous six months before the date of presentation of the document and must bear the proper fiscal stamps.]

Birth certificate of children [...Panamanians, if there are, with their proper fiscal stamp.]

Present personal identification card of the spouse [...Panamanian, authenticated by Civil Register . . .]

Letter of responsibility from the spouse [...Panamanian, signed, where he/her is obligated to cover all the foreigner expenses and of the repatriation, if needed . . .]

For the male, resolution issued by the Ministry of Labour and Labour Development (MITRADEL) where it authorizes the interested party to work in the national territory with a status of married to a Panamanian. In case of not having it at the time of the presentation of the permit of residency request at Immigration, certifications stating that the negotiation of this permission is in process at MITRADEL can be presented, or a simple copy of the Power of Attorney and a request issued by the lawyer addressed to MITRADEL. In this case, the work permit remains pending in order to continue the visa procedure. If the work permit is denied the visa permit also will be denied. [...if the foreigner is retired or a pensioner and proves such condition with the correspondent certification, the labour permit is not required . . .]

For the female, a document that proves her source of income is sufficient to fund her expenses within the territory of Panama, such as payroll check vouchers, social security vouchers from her husband or another source that proves how she can fund her expenses. [.if she works to support herself, she must presents her labour permit or copy of the request presented to MITRADEL.]

Marital interview [. . . the day of the request presentation before the Legal Department, you will be informed about the date in which you must appear with your spouse for an interview. In the case of not showing up at the given date, another interview won’t be granted. ]

Legal Base:
Articles 14, 25, and 35 of the Law-Decree No.16 June 30 of 1960, Law-Decree No.13 of September 20 of 1965, 6th Law of March 5 of 1980 and Executive Decree No.52 of February 19 of 2003.

Comments:
In case that the request includes dependents (if the foreigner has dependent children or parents, that are within the familiar nucleus) the requirements for Immigrant’s Visa within the Resident’s Dependent Status must be included, proving the relationship and that the resident has the proper economic solvency as stated on the Executive Decree No. 52 of February of 2003 (a B/ 500.00 monthly income plus B/75.00 per each dependent). It Should be considered that the petitioner included as a dependent of a resident, will not be qualified for a work permit.

In the case in which the spouses or one of them is abroad and belongs to a nationality that for any migratory policy reason is requested to comply with the Authorized or Consulted Visa, the petitioner must comply with Article 11 of Executive Decree 52 of February 19 of 2003, which requires a minimum of six months living together after the marriage celebration and with other applicable dispositions related to restricted visas.

Opening hours to the public:
Monday through Friday 7:30 am – 1:30 p.m.

Address:
29th Street and Cuba Avenue
Central Phone Numbers: (507) 507-1800


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Copyright © 2007. National Directorate of Immigration and Naturalization. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

When in doubt, get an Apostille



Panama Immigration clearly says it:
A) All documents issued abroad, should be submitted duly apostilled or authenticated by the Embassy or Consulate of Panama in the country that issued it and by the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Panama. B) All documents issued abroad in language besides Spanish, must be translated by a certified interpreter recognized by the Minister of Justice.

The Apostille is demanded in Panama for foreign Police Records (even if you are an angel and have never been convicted), Birth certificates, Marriage certificates, Social Security letters, and lately even letters of reference from banks.

U.S. State Department explains:
Documents issued in one country which need to be used in another country must be "authenticated" or "legalized" before they can be recognized as valid in the foreign country. This is a process in which various seals are placed on the document. Such documents range from powers of attorney, affidavits, birth, death and marriages records, incorporation papers, deeds, patent applications, home studies and other legal papers. The number and type of authentication certificates you will need to obtain depend on the nature of the document and whether or not the foreign country is a party to the multilateral treaty on "legalization" of documents. (A) If your document is intended for use in a country which is a party to a treaty called the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement of Legalization for Foreign Public Documents ("Hague Legalization Convention") (countries listed below), obtaining a special "apostille" certificate is generally all that is required.

US federal documents (such as a Social Security letter) may be authenticated only by the US State Department. However, other documents which a have a notary signature are authenticated by the Department of State of each individual state. The same may apply in federal nations like Canada, Australia and Germany.*

You can get the Apostille by yourself using a self-addressed stamped envelope and paying by check, or a privately-owned notary service.

Once you are in Panama, the Embassy of your country cannot issue an Apostille for your document. This has to be done BEFORE you arrive to Panama.

For more information, see:
US State Department Authentication of Federal documents
US State Department List of State Authentication Authorities*
Wikipedia Guide to Apostille

If you want to just forget about the whole Apostille thing, you can take your chances with the list of Panama consuls in Panamatramita.gob.pa. Call them up first to figure out if it is better to deliver the document yourself in person, or if they can handle return postage. If they lose your document, there is no authority you can complain to!

*If there is a country you would like us to cover, email us and we will post the link to its Apostille instructions.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

You can sue a builder after 1 year

Many contracts drafted in Spanish by Panamanian builders - and gladly accepted by many real estate agents claiming to act in best agent of the foreign buyer - have a clause which says:
THE APARTMENT shall include the following warranties FOR REPARATIONS: one (1) year from the date of the certificate of occupancy, except in cases of negligence due to THE PROMMISORY BUYER’s use or abuse.

The term may vary to read 1 year from the date of signing of the promise agreement or registration of the final deed.

When faced with claims for tiles popping up from the expansion of poorly dried floors, leaks into penthouses during heavy rains, plywood kitchen furniture bulging because of water dripping from substandard plumbing, many builders point to said clause to tell the buyer to go somewhere else.

Enter the old 1917 Civil Code, which in Article 1343 states:
"The contractor of a building which was damaged for construction defects ("vicios de la construcción"), is liable for the damages and injuries if the defect ("ruina") occurred within a term of 10 years, counted from the date when the construction ended; the same liability, and for the same time, will have the architect who directs it, if he knows that the defect is due to the soil or the management.
"If the cause was the breach of the contractor to the contract conditions, the action for indemnization may last 15 years."

An essay RESPONSABILIDAD CIVIL POR DEFECTOS EN LA INDUSTRIA DE LA CONSTRUCCIÓN by Dr. Pedro Barsallo points out how the Spanish Supreme Tribunal has been holding that the developer must also be liable for thos contractor liability, under Article 1591 of the Spanish Civil Code, which has the same text as Article 1343. This is specially important in Panama, where a buyer may sign a promise to purchase agreement with one corporation (for example: LANDHOLDING, S.A.), at the offices of a developer (PROMOTOR DEVELOPMENTS, S.A.), which in turns hires another company to be the contractor and get construction permits (BUILDER ENGINEER, S.A.) and another corporation is subcontracted to do windows and/or kitchens (INCOMPETENT SUBCONTRACTORS, S.A.), usually all with the same directors and most likely the same shareholders.

The Panama Supreme Court has been quoting the essay in several decision against builders, such as :
ROBERT TOLEDANO et al v PROVENCO, S. A., VENTAS Y PROYECTOS, S. A., PROYECTOS Y EDIFICACIONES, S. A. and CIELO RASO, DIVISIONES Y AISLAMIENTO, S. A. (July 3, 2001): PROVENCO, S. A. and PROYECTOS Y EDIFICACIONES, S. A. were found liable for US$33,222K in damages, out of US$60K claimed for losses during 14 months of repairs at the Mar Plaza condo in Marbella.
PRODUCTOS DEL MAR Y DEL CAMPO, S. A. and PASTAS FRESCAS, S.A. vs BASTIDAS, S.A. and CONSTRUCTORA VILLARREAL, S.A. (January 30, 2003): CONSTRUCTORA VILLARREAL, S.A., was found liable for US$40K in damages caused to neighboring complainants while working in the land of BASTIDAS, S.A.
.