Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke University with the text "Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses."Do you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.

Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.

10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses

Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.

1. Who can the IRA money be used for?

 Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.

2. What schools qualify?

Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.

3. What expenses qualify?

There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.

4. How much is exempt?

The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.

Example

Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.

Her expenses for the year are as follows:

  • Tuition: $22,000
  • Room and Board: $13,000
  • Books: $1,000
  • Supplies: $500
  • Equipment: $500
  • Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000

Jane received the following aid:

  • Federal Grant: $2,400
  • Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
  • Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
  • Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
  • Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600

You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.

For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.

Self-Directed IRA Owner Wins Appeal and Avoids Account Distribution for Common Mistake

Every year, there is at least one case when the IRS attempts to distribute a self-directed IRA for failing to meet a single technical requirement. This common situation arises when an IRA owner uses their standard, non-self-directed IRA to purchase assets that only self-directed IRA custodians allow. This was the case of McGaugh v. Commissioner, as Mr. McGaugh owned a Merrill Lynch IRA, and requested Merrill Lynch acquire FPFC shares for his IRA. Merrill Lynch sent the funds for the purchase to FPFC, but unfortunately considered the purchase a distribution from Mr. McGaugh’s IRA, and sent him a 1099-R.

TIP: When buying non-publicly traded assets, such as private stock or LLC units, make sure that you use a self-directed IRA custodian who allows such assets to be held by an IRA.

Mr. McGaugh intended for the shares to be owned by his IRA, and in fact had them titled as “Raymond McGaugh FBO Raymond McGaugh IRA.” The shares were sent to Merrill Lynch, who refused them and attempted to send the shares to Mr. McGaugh. In the end, Merrill Lynch did not recognize the shares as assets of Mr. McGaugh’s IRA, and Mr. McGaugh was forced to dispute the 1099-R with the IRS in Tax Court. The IRS alleged that the assets were distributed from Mr. McGaugh’s IRA since Merrill Lynch, his custodian, refused the shares and sent them to Mr. McGaugh. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the IRS, and in favor of Mr. McGaugh. The Court ruled that Mr. McGaugh never took personal possession of the FPFC private stock, and stated that the shares were not in his personal name. Consequently, he never had constructive possession of his IRA assets and they were not considered distributed. It is important to note that had the shares been titled to his personal name (not FBO his IRA), the case likely would’ve gone the other way. Also, it is important to note that shares should never be titled in the IRA owner’s name FBO their IRA. This was presumably done by FPFC or requested by Mr. McGaugh, since Merrill Lynch refused the shares.

TIP: Make sure that self-directed assets (e.g. real estate, private stock, LLC units) are owned in the name of your IRA. The typical titling of a self-directed IRA is as follows, “ABC Trust Co. FBO Mat Sorensen IRA.”

Roth Conversions: When You Should Convert Your IRA or 401(k) to Roth?

Many Americans wonder when they should convert their IRA or 401(k) to Roth? If you have a traditional IRA or 401(k), then that money grows tax-deferred and you pay tax on the money as it is drawn out at retirement. On the other hand, Roth IRAs and 401(k)s grow and come out tax-free at retirement. Who could argue with that? Yet, most Americans have been sucked into traditional IRAs and 401(k)s because we get a tax deduction when we put the money in a traditional account, saving us money on taxes now.

For more on the differences between Roth IRA and Roth 401(k), take a look at the video from my Partner Mark J. Kohler:

The good news is that you can convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, or your traditional 401(k) to a Roth 401(k). The price to make that conversion is including the amount you convert to Roth as taxable income for the year in which you make the conversion. So, if I convert $100K from my traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in 2017, I will take that $100K as income on my 2017 tax return, then pay any federal and state taxes on that income depending on my 2017 tax bracket. Many retirement account owners want to move their traditional funds to Roth, but don’t like the idea of paying additional taxes to do so. I get it. Nobody likes paying more taxes now, even if it clearly saves you more as your account grows and the entire growth comes out tax-free. Here are three cut-and-dry situations of when you should definitely convert your traditional IRA or 401(k) funds to Roth:

  1. Up-Side Investment Opportunity – I’ve had numerous clients over the years convert their traditional funds to Roth before investing their account into a certain investment. They’ve done this because they’ve had a tremendous investment opportunity arise where they expect significant returns. They’d rather pay the tax on the smaller investment amounts now, so that the returns will go back into their Roth IRA or 401(k), where it can grow to an unlimited amount and come out tax-free. These clients have invested in real estate deals, start-ups, pre-IPOs, and other potentially lucrative investments. So, if you have an investment that you really believe in and will likely result in significant returns, then you’re far better off paying a little tax on the amount being invested before the account grows and returns a large profit. That way, the profit goes back into the Roth and the money becomes tax-free.
  2. Low-Income Year – Another situation where you should covert traditional funds to Roth is when you have a low-income tax-year. Since the pain of the conversion is that you have to pay tax on the amount that you convert, you should convert when you are in a lower tax bracket to lessen the blow. For example, if you are married and have $75K of taxable income for the year and you decide to convert $50K to Roth, you will pay federal tax on that converted amount at a rate of 15% which would result in $7,500 in federal taxes. Keep in mind that you also pay state tax on the amount that you convert (if your state has state income tax), and most states have stepped brackets where you pay tax at a lower rate when you have lower income. If you instead converted when you were in a high-income year, let’s say $250K of income, then you’d pay federal tax on a $50K conversion at a rate of 33% which would result in federal taxes of $16,500. That’s more than twice the taxes due when you are in a lower-income year. Now, you may not have taxable income fluctuations. But, for those who are self-employed, change jobs and have a loss of income, or have investment losses where taxable income is lower than normal for a year, you should think about converting your retirement funds to Roth. You may not have a more affordable time to get to Roth.
  3. Potential Need for a Distribution After Five Years – One of the perks of Roth accounts is that you can take out the funds that are contributed or converted after five years without paying tax or the early withdrawal penalty (even if you aren’t 59 1/2). For Roth conversions, the amount you convert can be distributed from the Roth account five years after the tax year in which you converted. The five-year clock starts to tick on January 1st of the tax year in which you convert, regardless of when you convert within the year. So, if you converted your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in November 2017, then you could take a distribution of the amounts converted without paying tax or penalty on January 2nd, 2022. If you try to access funds in your traditional IRA or 401(k) before you are 59 1/2, then you will pay tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty even if the amounts you distribute are only the contributions you put in, not the investment gains. Clearly, the Roth account is much more accessible in the event you need personal funds. Keep in mind, you don’t get this perk immediately: You have to wait 5 years from the tax year in which you converted before you can take out the converted amount tax and penalty free.

One final thought to consider when converting to a Roth IRA: The IRS allows you to undo the conversion if you later decide that it was a bad idea (e.g. you can’t pay the taxes and don’t want a payment plan with the IRS). What happens is the converted funds go back to the traditional account, and the converted amount is removed from your taxable income. This process is known as a Roth Re-Characterization, and you can learn more about it in my prior article here.

5 Point Checklist to Keep Your Solo 401(k) Compliant

Solo 401(k)s have become a popular retirement plan option for self-employed persons. Unfortunately, many of the plans are not properly maintained and are at the risk of significant penalty and/or plan termination. If you have a Solo 401(k), you need to ensure that the 401(k) is being properly maintained. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure your plan is on track.

  1. Is the Plan Up-to-Date? The IRS requires all 401(k) plans, including solo 401(k)s, to be amended at least once every 6 years. If you’ve had your plan over 6 years and you’ve never restated the plan or adopted amendments, it is not compliant and upon audit you will be subject to fines and possible plan termination (IRS Rev Proc 2016-17). If your plan is out of date, your best option is to restate your plan to make sure it is compliant with current law. On average, most plan documents we see update every 2-3 years as the laws effecting the plan documents change.
  2. Are You Properly Tracking Your Plan Funds? Your solo 401(k) plan funds need to be properly tracked and they must identify the different sources for each participant. For example, if two spouses are contributing Roth 401(k) employee contributions and the company is matching traditional 401(k) dollars, then you need to be tracking these four different sources of funds, and you must have a written accounting record documenting these different fund types.
  3. Plan Funds Must Be Separated by Source and Participant. You must maintain separate bank accounts for the different participants’ funds (e.g. spouses or partners in a solo K), and you must also separate traditional funds from Roth funds. In addition, you must properly track and document investments from these different fund sources so that returns to the solo 401(k) are properly credited to the proper investing account.
  4. Does Your Solo 401(k) Need to File a Form 5500? There are two primary situations where you may be required to file a Form 5500 for your solo 401(k). First, if your solo 401(k) has more than $250,000 in assets. And second, if the solo 401(k) plan is terminated (regardless of total asset amount). If either of these instances occur, then the solo 401(k) must file a Form 5500 to the IRS annually. Form 5500 is due by July 31 of each year for the prior year’s plan activity. Solo 401(k)s can file what is known as a 5500-EZ. The 5500-EZ is a shortened version of the standard Form 5500. Unfortunately, the Form 5500-EZ cannot be filed electronically and must be filed by mail. Solo 401(k) owners have the option of filing a Form 5500-SF on-line through the DOL. The on-line filing is a preferred method as it can immediately be filed and tracked by the plan owner. In fact, if you qualify to file a 5500-EZ, the IRS/DOL allow you file the Form 5500-SF on-line but you can skip certain questions so that you only end up answering what is on the shorter Form 5500-EZ.
  5. Are You Properly Reporting Contributions and Rollovers? If you’ve rolled over funds from an IRA or other 401(k) to your solo 401(k), you should’ve indicated that the rollover or transfer was to another retirement account. So long as you did this, the company rolling over the funds will issue a 1099-R to you, but will include a code on the 1099-R (code G in box 7) indicating that the funds were transferred to another retirement account, and that the amount on the 1099-R is not subject to tax.  If you’re making new contributions to the solo 401(k), those contributions should be properly tracked on your personal and business tax returns. If you are an s-corp, your employee contributions should show up on your W-2, and your employer contributions will show up on line 17 of your 1120S s-corp tax return. If you are a sole prop, your contributions will typically show up on your personal 1040 on line 28.

Make sure you are complying with these rules on an annual basis. If your solo 401(k) retirement plan is out of compliance, get with your attorney or CPA immediately to make sure it is up-to-date. Failure to properly file Form 5500 runs at a rate of $25 a day up to a maximum penalty of $15,000 per return not properly filed. You don’t want to get stung by that penalty for failing to file a relatively simple form. The good news is there are correction programs offered for some plan failures, but don’t get sloppy, or you’ll run the risk losing your hard-earned retirement dollars.

Self-Directed IRA Valuations: Why Does My Self-Directed IRA Custodian Ask for a Valuation Update Every Year?

If you have a self-directed IRA with non-publicly traded assets like real estate, private stock, or an LLC interest, you’ve definitely been asked for an annual fair market valuation for the assets in your account. Why does your IRA custodian ask for this every year? Because they have to.

An IRA must report its fair market value to the IRS annually. Fair market value is reported to the IRS by your IRA custodian via IRS Form 5498. For standard IRAs holding stocks or mutual funds, those account values are automatically determined as they simply take the stock or fund price as of the close of the market on December 31st each year, and they use these amounts to set the year-end account fair market value. For self-directed accounts, such fair market values are not readily available and it becomes the IRA account owner’s responsibility to obtain their self-directed investment values so that their custodian can properly report the account’s fair market value. The value of an account is important for a few reasons. First, the IRS requires it to be updated annually. Second, it is used to set required minimum distributions (“RMDs”) for those account holders over the age of 70 ½ with traditional IRAs. Lastly, the account value is used when converting an entire account, or a particular investment or portion of the account, from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

WHAT IS FAIR MARKET VALUE

Fair market value of an investment has been broadly defined by the Court as:

“The price at which property would change hands between a hypothetical willing buyer and a hypothetical willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell, and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” U.S. v. Cartwright, 411 US 546 (1973).

Now here’s the hard part: Even though the IRS requires IRAs to update their fair market value on an annual basis, the Government Accountability Office noted in their recent report that:

“Current IRS guidance includes NO [emphasis added] guidance or advice to custodians or IRA owners regarding how to determine the FMV [fair market value]”. United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-17-02, Retirement Security Improved Guidance Could Help Account Owners Understand the Risks of Investing in Unconventional Assets. (Dec. 2016).

The absence of guidance, however, has not relieved IRA owners or their custodians from obtaining and reporting this information. While there is no specific fair market valuation guidance for IRAs, there are commonly accepted methods of reporting value used by professionals and companies within the self-directed IRA industry. Most of these methods have been adopted from law and regulations governing employer retirement plans or estates.

METHODS TO BE USED BY ASSET TYPE

The table below outlines preferred valuation methods that are commonly used in the industry for the most common self-directed IRA assets. As you will note, when the valuation is needed for a taxable event, such as a distribution or Roth conversion, greater detail and supporting information will be required as the valuation will result in tax being due.*

Asset Non-Taxable (Annual FMV) Taxable (RMD, distribution or conversion)
Real Estate Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) from a real estate professional is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept property tax assessor values or Zillow reports in non-taxable situations. Real estate appraisal is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept a broker’s price opinion.
Promissory Note Value of a note can be reported by calculating the principal due plus any accrued and unpaid interest. This is the valuation method used for calculating the value of a note for estate tax purposes. Same as non-taxable, principal amount due plus accrued and un-paid interest. For notes in default, a third-party opinion as to value is typically required in order for the note to be written-down below face value.
Precious Metals For bullion, use the spot value of the metal in question times the ounces owned. Spot value is widely reported on a daily basis on financial sites.

For acceptable coins, use market data for the coin in question via the Grey Sheets available at www.bullionvalues.com.

Same as non-taxable.
LLC, LP, or Private Company Interest Obtain a third party-opinion of value of the LLC interest. The opinion should rely on IRS Revenue Ruling 59-60. For asset holding companies, the valuation should focus on the value of the assets. For operating companies, the valuation should focus on earnings. Similar requirement, but the detail of the opinion should be more significant. For example, for an asset holding company where the IRAs interest is determined by the assets of the LLC. A CMA would be acceptable for calculating that assets value in the company in an annual valuation. However, an appraisal of the real estate to calculate in that asset would be required in a taxable situation.

Since the valuation reporting policies of custodians vary, IRA owners should make sure that they understand their IRA custodian’s policies for valuations for the assets in question.

Our firm routinely assists clients with obtaining third-party opinions of value and can assist IRA owners who need to produce a report or third party opinion as to an LLC or other investment interest held by an IRA.

* Please note that there are clearly differences of opinions on these matters, and since there is no specific legal guidance for IRA valuations, please keep in mind that the table above is based on my own industry experience and opinions. Seek a licensed professional in all instances for your specific situation.

IRA Contribution Deadlines: Two Out of Three IRA Types Can’t be Extended

Exterior photo of the IRS building and sign with text reading "IRA Contribution Deadlines: Two Out of Three IRA Types Can't Be Extended."You have until April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 IRA contributions for Roth and Traditional IRAs. If you’re self-employed and are using a SEP, your deadline is determined by your company’s tax filing deadline (e.g. s-corp, partnership, or sole prop). So, if you were an s-corp or partnership in 2016, then your filing deadline was March 15th, 2017. II you are a sole prop, then the deadline is April 18th, 2017. If you extended your company return, that extension will also apply to your SEP IRA contributions. The table below breaks down the deadlines and extension options for Traditional, Roth and SEP IRAs.

Type of IRA Contribution Type Deadline Details
Traditional IRA Traditional, Deductible April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 219(f)(3); You can file your return claiming a contribution before the contribution is actually made.  Rev. Rul. 84-18.
Roth IRA Roth, Not Deductible April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 408A(c)(7).
SEP IRA  Employee, Deductible N/A: Employee contributions cannot be made to a SEP IRA plan.
Employer Contribution, Deductible March 15/April 15th: Due Date for Company Tax Return Filing (including extensions). IRC § 404(h)(1)(B).

As outlined above, you have until the 2016 individual tax return deadline of April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions. The deadline for Traditional and Roth IRAs, however, does not include extensions. So, even if you extend your 2016 tax return, your 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions are still due on April 18th, 2017.

SEP IRA contribution deadlines are based on the company tax return deadline, which could be March 15th if the company is taxed as a corporation (“c” or “s”) or partnership, and April 15th if it is a sole proprietorship. Keep in mind that this deadline includes extensions, so if you extend your company tax return filing, you will extend the time period to make 2016 SEP IRA contributions.