Many self-directed investors have the option of choosing between a self-directed IRA or a self-directed solo 401k. Both accounts can be self-directed so that you can invest into any investment allowed by law such as real estate, LLCs, precious metals, or private company stock. However, depending on your situation, you may choose one account type over the other. What are the differences? When should you choose one over the other?
We’ve been advising clients for over a decade on self-directed IRAs and solo 401(k)s and what we’ve learned is that there is no universal answer to the question. Instead, you need to learn what is best based on your personal situation and investment objectives. Do you even qualify for a solo(k)? What investments do you plan to make and does one account type make a difference for your investments? The good news is that either way you go, we can help with a self-directed IRA at Directed IRA, where we are a licensed trust company and can serve as custodian of your IRA. Or, we can set-up a solo(k) at KKOS Lawyers using our pre-approved plan documents.
Must be an individual with earned income or funds in a retirement account to rollover.
Must be self-employed with no other employees besides the business owner and family/partners.
$6,000 max annual contribution. Additional $1,000 if over 50.
$56,000 max annual contribution (it takes $140K of wage/se income to max out). Contributions are employee and employer.
Traditional & Roth
You can have a Roth IRA and/or a Traditional IRA. The amount you contribute to each is added together in determining total contributions.
A solo 401(k) can have a traditional account and a roth account within the same plan. You can convert traditional sums over to Roth as well.
Cost and Set-Up
You will work with a self-directed IRA custodian who will receive the IRA contributions in a SDIRA account. Most of the custodians we work with have an annual fee of $300-$350 a year for a self-directed IRA.
You must use an IRS pre-approved document when establishing a solo 401k. This adds additional cost over an IRA. Our fee for a self-directed and self-trusteed solo 401(k) is $995 with atty consultation or $495 for the plan only.
An IRA must have a third party custodian involved on the account (e.g. bank. Credit union, trust company) who is the trustee of the IRA. Of course we recommend our company, www.directedira.com.
A 401(k) can be self trustee’d, meaning the business owner can be the trustee of the 401(k). This provides for greater control but also greater responsibility.
A self-directed IRA is invested through the self directed IRA custodian. A self-directed IRA can be subject to a tax called UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.
A Solo 401(k) is invested by the trustee of the 401(k) which could be the business owner. A solo 401(k) is exempt from UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.
Keep in mind that the solo 401(k) is only available to self-employed persons while the self-directed IRA is available to everyone who has earned income or who has funds in an existing retirement account that can be rolled over to an IRA.
Based on the differences outlined above, a solo 401(k) is generally a better option for someone who is self-employed and is still trying to maximize contributions as the solo 401(k) has much higher contribution amounts. On the other hand, a self-directed IRA is a better option for someone who has already saved for retirement and who has enough funds in their retirement accounts that can be rolled over and invested via a self-directed IRA as the self-directed IRA is easier to and cheaper to establish.
Another major consideration in deciding between a solo 401(k) and self-directed IRA is whether there will be debt on real estate investments. If there is debt and if the account owner is self-employed, they are much better off choosing a solo 401(k) over an IRA as solo 401(k)s are exempt from UDFI tax on leveraged real estate.
Choosing between a self-directed IRA and a solo 401(k) is a critical decision when you start self-directing your retirement. Make sure you consider all of the differences before you establish your new account.
When you establish an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account you are required to designate the beneficiary of that account so that the institution/custodian holding the account knows who will receive the account upon your death. You will die one day (sorry for the bad news), and without a properly completed beneficiary designation, your account will be stuck and won’t be able to be moved until a probate court orders otherwise. The form can be completed easily, so make sure you take care of this important step when establishing your retirement accounts and bank accounts.
What’s a beneficiary designation?
A beneficiary designation is simply a written and signed statement placed on record with your account custodian that specifies who receives your account upon your death. Beneficiary designations are used on IRA accounts, 401(k) accounts, HSA accounts, and life insurance policies. Beneficiary designations are used by IRA custodians, 401(k) account custodian/administrators, banks/credit unions, and life insurance companies to pass the deceased persons account on to the person(s) designated on the form without reference to the deceased person’s will, trust, and without the involvement of the probate courts. As a result, your beneficiary designation form is a powerful instrument.
You can list a primary beneficiary and secondary beneficiaries. A primary beneficiary is the first person whom you list, and this person or persons receive the account upon your passing. A secondary (aka “contingent”) beneficiary is someone you list who receives the account if the primary beneficiary is not living. For example, a common way to list your beneficiary designations is to list your spouse as your primary beneficiary and your children as your secondary beneficiary. If your spouse is not living when you die, then your account passes to your secondary beneficiary.
To have a valid beneficiary designation you must ensure the following:
Designation: Use your institution’s/custodian’s form and designate the person(s) you desire as your beneficiary by listing their name, city/state, date of birth, and relationship to you. You can list one beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries in percentages. So, for example, if you had two children you wanted to receive the account, you would list them as 50% each on the designation form.
Sign the designation: This may be eSigned using an eSign method accepted by your institution/custodian.
Spousal waiver where applicable: If you have a spouse and you HAVE NOT listed your spouse as your primary beneficiary, then your spouse must sign a spousal waiver agreeing to someone else being listed as the primary beneficiary and your spouse’s signature on the waiver must be notarized. This is required as a matter of law. Failure to provide the waiver will result (at best) to your surviving spouse receiving at least half of your account upon your passing with the rest passing to your secondary beneficiaries.
Coordinate with your estate plan: If you list your trust for estate planning as the beneficiary of your IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account, you must provide a copy of the trust to your institution/custodian. The trust must have readily identifiable beneficiaries who receive your account upon your passing and must be considered a see-through trust (most revocable living trusts are).
The beneficiary designation is the “trump card”
Your beneficiary designation is the “trump card” when it comes to estate planning documents. For example, your beneficiary designation on your retirement account or bank account will control over a will which states someone different is to receive all your assets. As a result, it is critical that you provide a beneficiary designation for every account you have, and that these designations are updated when certain major life events arise.
Action required in three common situations
If you already provided beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, bank accounts or life insurance, it is critical that you review them and update them upon the following events:
Divorce: There are plenty of cases when someone who failed to update their beneficiary designation passes away and their ex-spouse ends up receiving the account. This is usually contrary to the account owner’s wishes, but if you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your heirs could be in this predicament. (Talk about not leaving gracefully!) This situation is now going to be ugly for your ex, your new spouse (if you had one), and your children.
New child: If you have a new child who was not previously identified as a beneficiary, you should update your designations to add this new child.
New estate plan: If you establish an estate plan (will, or ideally, revocable living trust), you should ensure that your wishes in your beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts and bank accounts match-up with the terms of your trust.
When to list your trust versus your spouse/children directly
Even if you have a revocable living trust, you may want to list your spouse as your primary beneficiary. As a rule of thumb, most estate planning attorneys recommend that, for IRA or 401(k) accounts, you list your spouse as your primary beneficiary and your trust as your secondary beneficiary. The reason is that your spouse can receive your retirement account upon your passing and can do what is called a spousal rollover. This rule only applies to spouses. For example, under a spousal rollover, the retirement account of the deceased person can be transferred/rolled over into an IRA surviving spouse. This is an advantageous way for a spouse to receive a retirement account as the account is treated simply as an account of the surviving spouse, and is not subject to RMD or other quirky rules associated with inherited retirement accounts (aka “inherited IRAs” or “beneficiary IRAs”). Rather, the funds are just treated as a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA of the surviving spouse.
Your Trust can be listed second, and, in the case where your primary beneficiary is not living, certain provisions in your trust designated to protect the funds from creditors or misappropriation from inheriting children or other heirs would apply. Your children, or other heirs under your trust who are listed as secondary beneficiaries on your form would receive the funds from your retirement account in an inherited IRA (aka “beneficiary IRA”) and would have RMD requirements to remove funds from their account over their life expectancy. This is sometimes called a “stretch IRA” and is a great tax strategy as it allows them to extend the tax-free (Roth) or tax-deferred (Traditional) benefits of the account over their own lifetime.
Remember, the beneficiary designation is critical and must be completed properly. Take the extra time to get it done right, and check up on the designations on any of your existing accounts that you may be unsure of. It’s better to get these things squared away and in order now than to presume that you completed them right when you set-up the account long ago.
Solo 401(k)s have become a popular retirement plan option for self-employed persons. Unfortunately, many 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. Does your Solo 401(k) need to file a Form 5500-EZ?
There are two primary situations where you are required to file a Form 5500 for your Solo 401(k).
If your Solo 401(k) has more than $250,000 in assets, and
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 31st 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 online through the DOL. The online filing is preferred as it can immediately be filed and tracked by the plan owner. In fact, if you qualify to file a 5500-EZ, the IRS and DOL allow you file the Form 5500-SF online, but you can skip certain questions so that you only end up answering what is on the shorter Form 5500-EZ. We regularly file Form 5500-EZs and 5500-SFs for Solo K clients in the law firm for only $250.
2. 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 six years. If you’ve had your plan over six 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 two to three years as the laws effecting the plan documents change. We’ve had two different plan amendments to our IRS pre-approved plan in the past six years.
3. 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 employer 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.
4. 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.
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 have 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 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.
Many Americans wonder when they should convert their traditional IRA or 401(k) to Roth? If you have a traditional IRA or 401(k), then that money grows tax-deferred BUT you pay tax on the money as it is drawn out at retirement. And that’s a big BUT. On the other hand, you get zero tax deduction on Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s but they grow and come out tax-free at retirement. What’s better? Well, in the end the Roth account is a much better deal as you’re pulling out what you put in AND the growth of the account after years of investing and saving. That’s likely a larger amount than what you put in so you’d typically be better paying tax on what you put in (or convert) rather than paying tax on the the larger sum that you will take out later. The trade-off of course, is you’re playing the long game. You’res kipping a tax deduction or paying tax now to convert in return for tax-free growth and tax-free distributions at retirement. The Roth seems to be the better deal. 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 2018, I will take that $100K as income on my 2018 tax return, then pay any federal and state taxes on that income depending on my 2018 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. It can be a big tax hit when you do your taxes. 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.
One way to soften the tax blow of the Roth conversion is to chunk the amount you want to convert over two or more years. For example, if you are at the end of the year in November 2018 and you want to convert $100K to Roth, you may decide to convert $100K by December 31, 2018 to have that taxed in the current year and then convert the remaining $50k on January 1, 2019 to have that amount taxed in 2019. This way, you don’t have as much of an income swing and it spreads the tax due over the two years. You could also do $33K each year to spread it out of 3 years.
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 2018, then you could take a distribution of the amounts converted without paying tax or penalty on January 2nd, 2023. 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 is that there are no do-overs. You used to be able to do what was called a Roth re-characterization where you could undo a Roth conversion but the ability to undo a Roth conversion was eliminated in 2018 forward. As a result, make sure you’re committed before you convert as there are no mulligans, do-overs, or re-characterizations anymore. Also, if you want the conversion to fall onto your 2018 or current year tax return, then make sure you convert those sums by December 31.
As 2018 comes to an end, it is critical that Solo 401(k) owners understand when and how to make their 2018 contributions. There are three important deadlines you must know if you have a Solo 401(k) or if you plan to set one up still in 2018. A Solo 401(k) is a retirement plan for small business owners or self-employed persons who have no other full time employees other than owners and spouses. It’s a great plan that can be self-directed into real estate, LLCs, or other alternative investments, and allows the owner/participants to contribute up to $55,000 per year (far faster than any IRA).
New Solo 401(k) Set-Up Deadline is 12/31/18
First, in order to make 2018 contributions, the Solo 401(k) must be adopted by your business by December 31st, 2018. If you haven’t already adopted a Solo 401(k) plan, you should start now so that documents can be completed and filed in time. If the 401(k) is established on January 1st, 2019 or later, you cannot make 2018 contributions.
2018 Contributions Can Be Made in 2019
Both employee and employer contributions can be made up until the company’s tax return deadline including extensions. If you have a sole proprietorship (e.g. single member LLC or schedule C income) or C-Corporation, then the company tax return deadline is April 15th, 2018. If you have an S-Corporation or partnership LLC, the deadline for 2018 contributions is March 15th, 2019. Both of these deadlines (March 15th and April 15th) to make 2018 contributions may be extended another six months by filing an extension. This a huge benefit for those that want to make 2018 contributions, but won’t have funds until later in the year to do so.
W-2’s Force You to Plan Now
While employee and employer contributions may be extended until the company tax return deadline, you will typically need to file a W-2 for your wages (e.g. an S-Corporation) by January 31st, 2019. The W-2 will include your wage income and any deduction for employee retirement plan contributions will be reduced on the W-2 in box 12. As a result, you should make your employee contributions (up to $18,500 for 2018) by January 31st, 2019 or you should at least determine the amount you plan to contribute so that you can file an accurate W-2 by January 31st, 2019. If you don’t have all or a portion of the funds you plan to contribute available by the time your W-2 is due, you can set the amount you plan to contribute to the 401(k) as an employee contribution, and will then need to make said contribution by the tax return deadline (including extensions).
Now let’s bring this all together and take an example to outline how this may work. Sally is 44 years old and has an S-Corporation as an online business. She is the only owner and only employee, and had a Solo 401(k) established in 2018. She has $120,000 in net income for the year and will have taken $50,000 of that in wage income that will go on her W-2 for the year. That will leave $70,000 of profit that is taxable to her and that will come through to her personally via a K-1 from the business. Sally has not yet made any 2018 401(k) contributions, but plans to do so in order to reduce her taxable income for the year and to build a nest egg for retirement. If she decided to max-out her 2018 Solo 401(k) contributions, it would look like this:
Employee Contributions – The 2018 maximum employee contribution is $18,500. This is dollar for dollar on wages so you can contribute $18,500 as long as you have made $18,500. Since Sally has $50,000 in wages from her S-Corp, she can easily make an $18,500 employee contribution. Let’s say that Sally doesn’t have the $18,500 to contribute, but will have it available by the tax return deadline (including extensions). What Sally will need to do is let her accountant or payroll company know what she plans to contribute as an employee contribution so that they can properly report the contributions on her payroll and W-2 reporting. By making an $18,500 employee contribution, Sally has reduced her taxable income on her W-2 from $50,000 to $31,500. At even a 20% tax bracket for federal taxes and a 5% tax bracket for state taxes that comes to a tax savings of $4,625.
Employer Contributions – The 2018 maximum employer contribution is 25% of wage compensation. For Sally: Up to a maximum employer contribution of $36,500. Since Sally has taken a W-2 wage of $50,000, the company may make an employer contribution of $12,500 (25% of $50,000). This contribution is an expense to the company and is included as an employee benefit expense on the S-Corporation’s tax return (form 1120S). In the stated example, Sally would’ve had $70,000 in net profit/income from the company before making the Solo 401(k) contribution. After making the employer matching contribution of $12,500 in this example, Sally would then only receive a K-1 and net income/profit from the S-Corporation of $57,500. Again, if she were in a 20% federal and a 5% state tax bracket, that would create a tax savings of $3,125. This employer contribution would need to be made by March 15th, 2019 (the company return deadline) or by September 15th, 2019 if the company were to file an extension.
In the end, Sally would have contributed and saved $31,000 for retirement ($18,500 employee contribution, $12,500 employer contribution). And she would have saved approximately $7,750 in federal and state taxes. That’s a win-win.
Keep in mind, you need to start making plans now and you want to begin coordinating with your accountant or payroll company as your yearly wage information on your W-2 (self employment income for sole props) is critical in determining what you can contribute to your Solo 401(k). Also, make certain you have the plan set-up in 2018 if you plan to make 2018 contributions. While IRAs can be established until April 15th, 2019 for 2018 contributions, a Solo K must be established by December 31st, 2018. Don’t get the two confused, and make sure you’ve got a plan for your specific business.
Note: If you’ve got a single member LLC taxed as a sole proprietorship, or just an old-fashioned sole prop, or even or an LLC taxed as a partnership (where you don’t have a W-2), then please refer to our prior article here on how to calculate your Solo K contributions as they differ slightly from the s-corp example above.
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Mat’s book is the most practical and comprehensive self directed IRA guide in our industry. Reading this handbook should be the first step for any alternative asset investor, investment sponsor, or trusted advisor that seeks to become informed about how to maximize the value of IRAs.