The prohibited transaction rules are the most important rules to understand when you self-direct your retirement account. These rules restrict not what investments your retirement plan may acquire but whom your plan may transact with.
How It Happens
A prohibited transaction occurs when a retirement plan (e.g. self directed IRA or 401k) transacts with a disqualified person. IRC § 4975. A transaction is pretty easy to identify and is defined in the code as a sale, lease, exchange, payment, or other transfer of money from a retirement plan. If that transaction is with a disqualified person then the retirement plan has engaged in a prohibited transaction. The consequence of a prohibited transaction for an IRA is distribution of entire IRA while the consequence to a 401(k) or other employer based plan is a 15% excise tax on the amount involved and an additional 100% penalty if the transaction is not corrected. Regardless of the type of retirement account you are self-directing, the consequences are significant. IRC § 4975 (c)(3), IRC § 408 (e)(2)(A). IRC § 4975 (a),(b).
Often times, a disqualified person is generically referred to as a family member. While that definition can be accurate, it really can cause problems when applied as some family members are disqualified (e.g. spouse of plan owner) while others are not (e.g. brother of plan owner). Also, it can be really confusing to determine when a company is disqualified to a retirement plan or when partners are disqualified. Because of the confusion, I’ve created a disqualified person diagram to help sort out the details. If a party is in red, that means they are a disqualified person and that your retirement plan cannot transact with them. If the party is green, that means they are NOT disqualified and your retirement plan may transact with them.
Keep in mind that a self-dealing prohibited transaction can also arise if any disqualified party personally benefits from a retirement plans investments. In summary, you should avoid all transactions with disqualified persons and should seek legal counsel whenever a disqualified person is involved in any retirement plan investment.