image4280The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) concluded over a year of research and investigation on self-directed IRA’s and 401(k)’s with a report to Congress called Retirement Security: Improved Guidance Could Help Account Owners Understand the Risks of Investing in Unconventional Assets.

Self-directed IRA’s and 401(k)’s are accounts that may be invested into “unconventional” assets. The most common “self-directed” assets are real estate, LLC’s, start-ups, venture capital, private funds, and precious metals. The self-directed IRA industry has tripled over the past ten years and the demand and interest from retirement account holders continues to grow.

The GAO was tasked to research self-directed IRA’s by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

The GAO identified 27 custodians who handle self-directed IRA’s holding “unconventional” assets such as real estate, LLC’s, private company stock, and precious metals. Seventeen of these companies participated and responded to surveys and requests for information. These 17 companies reported holding 500,000 retirement accounts and $50 Billion in assets in unconventional investments.

I was interviewed by the GAO for this report and they also used my book, The Self-Directed IRA Handbook, while conducting research on the laws and taxes affecting self-directed IRA and 401(k) investors.

The GAO’s report concluded that IRS guidance is lacking in three specific areas:

  1. Prohibited Transactions: The GAO concluded that self-directed account holders who invest in unconventional assets are at greater risk of engaging in prohibited transactions and that the IRS should engage in additional outreach and education with regards to unconventional assets to ensure compliance. The prohibited transactions rules are found in IRC § 4975 and essentially restrict the account owner, and certain family members, from transacting personally with their own IRA. For example, it would be a prohibited transaction for an IRA owner to sell private stock they personally own to their own IRA. It is also a prohibited transaction to have use or benefit of your IRA’s assets. For example, if your IRA owned real estate, it would be a prohibited transaction to have personal use or occupancy of the property.
  1. UBTI (Unrelated Business Taxable Income): The GAO’s research and investigation concluded that many self-directed IRA and 401(k) investors are unaware of the unrelated business taxable income (“UBTI”) that can apply to some “unconventional” investments owned by an IRA. UBTI tax applies to IRA’s when they receive “business” income as opposed to “investment” income. IRA’s are designed to receive investment income such as rental income, interest income, dividend income, or capital gain income. However, if an IRA receives “business” income or “ordinary” income, that causes UBTI and the IRA ends up being responsible for tax on its income. In this instance, the IRA files a 990-T tax return and is responsible for tax on the income earned. Most self-directed IRA investments do not cause UBTI, but many self-directed investors unwittingly run into this tax. The GAO found in its report that there isn’t any guidance regarding UBTI in the IRS publications on IRA’s, Publications 590-A and 590-B. The GAO warned that without caution or specific guidance in these publications or through other efforts by the IRS, that self-directed account owners may unwittingly invest their account into assets that cause UBTI tax.
  1. Fair Market Valuations: The GAO’s report found that there is zero advice to custodians of IRA’s or to IRA owners regarding how to determine the fair market value (“FMV”) for unconventional assets held in a retirement account. Each year, the custodian of a self-directed IRA must report the FMV of the account to the IRS via form 5498. For publicly traded assets such as stocks or mutual funds, valuation is relatively simple as the valuations is the price of the stock or fund as of close of the market price on December 31 each year. For assets such as real estate or private company stock, such value is not as readily available and account holders and companies use varying methods for reporting FMV annually to the IRS. The GAO recommended that the IRS develop guidance or regulations on how unconventional assets should be valued and reported to the IRS. In their response to the report, the IRS stated that they will recommend that Treasury address fair market valuations in their upcoming retirement plan regulations for 2016-2017

The GAO report was an excellent analysis and summary of the common issues facing self-directed IRA and 401(k) owners investing in unconventional assets. As an attorney representing self-directed account holders for over ten years, I wholeheartedly agree with the three issues the GAO cited in their report and believe that further guidance from the IRS would increase awareness for not only account holders but also for their professional tax, legal, and financial advisers.

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