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Foundations are distinct legal entities that are almost invariably set up for charitable purposes or for the administration of the assets of a family or other social grouping. In many states they fulfil a role that charitable trusts play in jurisdictions with Anglo Saxon law. Foundations are subject to considerable variation in legal structure among countries, but are usually characterised by owning property in their own right despite having no persons who claim ownership rights over the assets of the foundations.

Foundations are usually managed by a board. In some jurisdictions, such as Austria, foundations are reasonably transparent and must file data on public record. In others, such as Panama and Liechtenstein they are extremely secretive.The appeal of foundations is growing as trustees seek to limit their liability to settlors, beneficiaries and others and as such foundation laws are becoming more commonplace in Anglo Saxon legal systems.