For weeks, Democrats have been trying to call voters' attention to the financial dealings of Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
Supporters of President Obama, the Democratic Party's candidate, have been suggesting that Romney has exploited tax shelters and offshore accounts to build and protect his wealth in ways that average taxpayers would never be able to do.
They are demanding Romney release many years of tax returns.
Romney has released only his 2010 return and a draft estimate of his 2011 return. He has said he'll release the full 2011 return when it is ready but no more than that. He says his investments are held in a blind trust, so he is not responsible for decisions about how the money is handled.
This controversy is the latest example of America's mixed feelings about wealthy presidential candidates, including John F. Kennedy, Ross Perot and John Kerry.
But the Romney situation has raised important questions, such as: What the heck is a blind trust? Are offshore accounts floating on boats near the horizon? Seriously. What are we talking about here?
Let's take them one at a time.
blind trust \ blīnd trəst \
This is a legal arrangement in which a person hires someone else, called a trustee, to manage his or her financial assets, such as cash, stocks and bonds. The person who owns the assets gets no information about specific actions taken by the trustee and has no right to intervene in the handling of the assets once they are inside the trust. The goal is to allow wealthy people to hang on to their assets while avoiding conflicts of interest. Because the owners are "blind" to where their money is, they can't make decisions specifically intended to boost the value of their investments.
tax shelter \ taks shel-tər \
A shelter is any investment or financial arrangement that tends to lower or even eliminate the amount of money owed in taxes. A simple shelter commonly used by average Americans is an individual retirement account, or IRA. An individual can open an IRA to "shelter" savings. The money you invest is allowed to grow over time without being taxed until you are at least 59 1/2 years old and can start withdrawing it. But wealthy people often pursue extremely complicated investments to shelter large amounts of money. Romney's IRA holds as much as $101 million.
offshore account \ of-shor əkaunt \
This is a bank account located in a place that is outside the authority of your own country. The word "offshore" is a figurative term, not literally referring to a watery location. Lots of offshore banking is done in landlocked places like Switzerland and Luxembourg. Americans open such accounts because they typically provide far more privacy, less regulation and lower taxation. One might be used by, say, a wealthy person going through a divorce who wants to hide assets to keep them out of U.S. divorce proceedings. These days, the offshore accounts can be fairly easy to use because money can be readily accessed with debit or credit cards and wire transfers.