There are 25 trillion dollars in retirement plans in the United States. Do you know that these funds can be invested into your business? Yes, it’s true, IRAs and 401(k)s can be used to invest in start-ups, private companies, real estate, and small businesses. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs and retirement account owners didn’t even know that retirement accounts can invest in private companies but you’ve been able to do it for over 30 years.
Think of who owns these funds: It’s everyday Americans, it’s your cousin, friend, running partner, neighbor…it’s you. In fact, for many Americans, their retirement account is their largest concentration of invest-able funds. Yet, you’ve never asked anyone to invest in your business with their retirement account. Why not? How much do you think they have in their IRA or old employer 401(k)? How attached do you think they are to those investments? These are the questions that have unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars to be invested in private companies and start-ups.
How Many People Are Doing This?
Recent industry surveys revealed that there are one million retirement accounts that are self-directed into private companies, real estate, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, start-ups, and other so-called “alternative” investments. It is a sliver of the overall retirement account market, but it’s growing in popularity.
So, how does it work? How can these funds be properly invested into your business? If you ask your CPA or lawyer, the typical response is, “It’s possible, but very complicated, so we don’t recommend it.” In other words, they’ve heard of it, but they don’t know how it works, and they don’t want to look bad guessing. If you ask a financial adviser, particularly your own, they’ll talk about how it’s such a bad idea while thinking about how much fees they’ll lose when you stop buying mutual funds, annuities, and stocks that they make commissions or other fees from. Well, not all financial advisers, but unfortunately too many do.
Now, there are some legal and tax issues that need to be complied with, but that’s what good lawyers and accounts are for, right? And yes, there is greater risk in private company or start-up investments so self-directed IRA investors need to conduct adequate due diligence and they shouldn’t invest all of their account into one private company investment. So how does it work?
What is a Self-Directed IRA?
In order to invest into a private company, start-up, or small business, the retirement account holder must have a self-directed IRA? So, what is a self-directed IRA? A self-directed IRA is a retirement account that can be invested into any investment allowed by law. If your account is with a typical IRA or 401(k) company, such as Fidelity, Vanguard, TD Ameritrade, Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, then you can only invest in investments allowed under their platform, and these companies deem private company investments as “administratively unfeasible” to hold so they won’t allow your IRA or 401(k) to invest in them (some make exceptions for ultra-high net-worth clients, $50M plus accounts). As a result, the first step when investing in a private company with retirement account funds is to rollover or transfer the funds, without tax consequence, to a self-directed custodian who will allow your IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA, HSA, or Solo 401(k) to be invested into a private company. There are over 30 companies who provide self-directed IRAs. For a detailed list of the companies that provide these types of accounts, check out the Retirement Industry Trust Association’s website and membership list. RITA is the national association for the self-directed retirement plan industry, and most major companies who provide these accounts are members of RITA.
Legal Tip: If an investor’s retirement account is with their current employer’s retirement plan (e.g. 401(k)), they won’t be able to change their custodian until they leave that employer or until they reach retirement age (59.5 years old). So, for now, they’re 401(k) is usually limited to buying mutual funds they don’t understand and don’t want.
Sell Corporation Stock or LLC Units to Self-Directed IRAs
Are you seeking capital for your business in exchange for stock or other equity? If so, you should consider offering shares or units in your company to retirement account owners. You don’t need to wait until your company is publicly traded to sell ownership to retirement accounts. Here are a few well-known companies who had individuals with self-directed IRAs invest in them before they were publicly traded: Facebook, Staples, Sealy, PayPal, Domino’s, and Yelp, just to name a few.
You can also raise capital for real estate purchases or equipment whereby a promissory note is offered to the IRA investor who acts as lender, and the funds are usually secured by the real estate or equipment being purchased. There are many investment variations available, but the most common is an equity investment purchasing shares or units where the IRA becomes a shareholder or note investment whereby the IRA becomes a lender. Keep in mind, you need to comply with state and federal securities laws when raising money from any investor.
Need to Know #1: Prohibited Transactions
There are two key rules to understand when other people invest their retirement account into your business. First, the tax code restricts an IRA or 401(k) from transacting with the account owner personally or with certain family (e.g. parents, spouse, kids, etc.). This restriction is known as the prohibited transaction rule. See IRC 4975 and IRS Pub 590A. Consequently, if you own a business personally you can’t have your own IRA or your parents IRA invest into your company to buy your stock or LLC units. However, more distant family members such as siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles could move their retirement account funds to a self-directed IRA to invest in your company. And certainly, unrelated third-parties would not be restricted by the prohibited transaction rules from investing in your company. What if you are only one of the founders or partners of a business, and you want to invest your IRA or your spouse’s IRA into the company? This is possible if your ownership and control is below 50%, but this question is very complicated and nuanced, so you’ll want to discuss it with your attorney or CPA who is familiar with this area of the tax law.
If a prohibited transaction occurs, the self-directed IRA is entirely distributed. That’s a pretty harsh consequence and one that makes compliance with this rule critical.
Need to Know #2: UBIT Tax
The second rule to understand is a tax known as Unrelated Business Income Tax (“UBIT”, aka, “UBTI”). UBIT is a tax that can apply to an IRA when it receives “business” income. IRAs and 401(k)s don’t pay tax on the income or gains that go back to the account so long as they receive “investment” income. Investment income would include rental income, capital gain income, dividend income from a c-corp, interest income, and royalty income. If you’ve owned mutual funds or stocks with your retirement account, the income from these investments always falls into one of these “investment” income categories. However, when you go outside of these standardized forms of investment, you can be outside of “investment” income and you just might be receiving “business” income that is subject to the dreaded “unrelated business income tax.” This tax rate is at 39.6% at $12,000 of taxable income annually. That’s a hefty rate, so you want to make sure you avoid it or otherwise understand and anticipate it when making investment decisions. The most common situation where a self-directed IRA will become subject to UBIT is when the IRA invests into an operational business selling goods or services who does not pay corporate income tax. For example, let’s say my new business retails goods on-line, and is organized as an LLC and taxed as a partnership. This is a very common form of private business and taxation, but one that will cause UBIT tax for net profits received by self-directed IRA. If, on the other hand, the same new business was a c-corporation and paid corporate tax (that’s what c-corps do), then the profits to the self-directed IRA would be dividend income, a form of investment income, and UBIT would not apply. Consequently, self-directed IRAs should presume that UBIT will apply when they invest into an operational business that is an LLC, but should presume that UBIT will not apply when they invest into an operational business that is a c-corporation.
Legal Tip: IRAs can own c-corporation stock, LLC units, LP interest, but they cannot own s-corporation stock because IRAs and 401(k)s do NOT qualify as s-corporation shareholders.
Now, if you’re an LLC raising capital from other people’s IRAs or 401(k)s, you should have a section in your offering documents that notifies people of potential UBIT tax on their investment. UBIT tax is paid by the retirement account annually on the net profits the account receives so it doesn’t cost the company raising the funds any additional money or tax. It costs the retirement account investor since UBIT is paid by the retirement account. Despite the hefty tax, many IRAs and 401(k)s will still invest when UBIT is present as they may be willing to pay the tax on a well-performing investment or their investment strategy. Alternatively, many self-directed IRAs may be investing with an intent to sell their ownership in the LLC as the mechanism to receive their planned return on investment. When selling their LLC ownership, the gain in the LLC units would be capital gain income and would not be subject to UBIT.
If the investment from the self-directed IRA was via a note or other debt instrument, then the profits to the IRA are simply interest income and that income is always investment income and is not subject to UBIT tax. Many companies raise capital from IRAs for real estate purchases or for equipment purchases. These loans from an IRA or IRA(s) are often secured by the real estate or equipment being purchased and the IRA ends up earning interest income like a private lender.
So, here’s a brief summary of what we’ve learned. First, there’s $25 trillion in retirement plans in the U.S. These retirement accounts can be used to invest into your start-up or private company. You need to comply with the prohibited transaction rules and you can’t invest your own account or certain family member’s account into your business as that would invalidate the IRA. But everyone else’s IRA can invest into your company. And lastly, depending on how the company is structured (LLC or C-Corp), and how the investment is designed (equity or debt/loan), there may be UBIT tax on the profits from the investment. Remember, UBIT tax usually arises for IRAs in operating businesses structured as LLCs where the company doesn’t pay a corporate tax on their net profits. This income is pushed down to the owners and in the case of an IRA this can cause UBIT tax liability.
Here’s the bottom line, retirement account funds can be a significant source of funding and investment for your business, so it’s worth some time and effort to learn how these funds can most efficiently be utilized. While there are some rules unique to retirement accounts they can easily be understood and planned for.
Are you a U.S. citizen considering moving yourself or your money outside the U.S.? Before you or money leave the USA, first consider the tax and legal consequences as they are often misunderstood.
U.S. Citizens have numerous tax and reporting obligations that arise from their foreign assets, investments, and accounts. In essence, if you have foreign assets, investments, or bank accounts, then you have two obligations to the United States Government.
First, you must disclose any foreign bank account whose value is over $10,000 (all foreign accounts are combined to reach the $10,000 threshold) and you must report any foreign asset (e.g. foreign stock, company ownership, etc.) whose value is $50,000 or greater. The form required to be filed annually to discloseforeign bank accounts in excess of $10,000 is known as FinCEN Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR). The form filed annually to disclose foreign assets with a value in excess of $50,000, is IRS Form 8938, Statement of Specified Financial Assets. In sum, the first obligation U.S. citizens have to their home country is the disclosure of foreign bank accounts and foreign assets.
Second, as a U.S. citizen you are required to pay U.S. federal income tax on the foreign income you receive as the U.S. taxes its citizens on income no matter whether it was earned in the U.S. or abroad. In other words, even if you make money outside the U.S., as a U.S. citizen, you are still required to pay federal tax on that income. If you paid foreign income taxes to the country where the income was derived and if that country has a tax treaty with the U.S., then you’ll typically receive a credit in the U.S. for the foreign taxes paid, which thereby reduces the amount of federal taxes owed in the U.S. Click here to see the list of countries with a foreign tax treaty with the U.S.
Some U.S. citizens presume that if they leave the U.S. that they are no longer subject to federal income tax in the U.S. but this is not the case. Even if you relocate to a foreign country and no longer earn income from the U.S. you are still subject to U.S. tax and on your foreign income (and potential state income tax depending on your state of residence). The only way to entirely escape the tax jurisdiction of the United States is to renounce U.S. citizenship but this is a costly and expensive process with numerous tax repercussions. See the Expatriation Tax rules from the IRS for more information here.
Let’s run through a common example that demonstrates how the disclosure and income tax reporting requirements work. A U.S. citizen has a bank account in Switzerland with a balance of $100,000. That account generates income of $5,000 for the year. For example purposes, let’s say that the $5,000 in income resulted in taxes owed to Switzerland of $500 and that the U.S. citizen reported and paid the tax to Switzerland. In addition to compliance with Switzerland law, the U.S. citizen would need to file FinCEN Form 114 (FBAR) to disclose the foreign bank account. The FBAR form filing is due by June 30th for the prior year’s accounts. The U.S. Citizen would also need to file IRS Form 8938, since the account was over $50,000. Form 8938 is due with the filing of the U.S. citizen’s federal tax return. In addition to the two disclosure forms that are filed in the U.S., the $5,000 of income from the Switzerland account must be reported as taxable income on the income tax return (form 1040) of the U.S. citizen. The $500 paid in tax to Switzerland will be credited to the taxpayer in computing the tax owed to the U.S. because the U.S. and Switzerland have a tax treaty. In sum, a $100,000 foreign bank account resulted in two disclosure form filings to the U.S. and inclusion of the income on the U.S. citizen’s federal tax return.
These are just the basics and every country has their own nuances. In addition there are many special rules and there are numerous exceptions to the filing discussed herein and as a result a U.S. citizen leaving the U.S. or sending money outside the U.S. should seek out experienced professionals to assist them in their U.S. tax and disclosure reporting obligations.
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.
Do you need access to your retirement account funds to start a business, to pay for non-traditional education expenses, to make a personal investment, or to pay off high interest debt? Rather than taking a taxable distribution from your 401(k), you can access a portion of the funds in your 401(k) via a loan from the 401(k) to yourself without paying any taxes or penalties to access the funds. The loan must be paid back to the 401(k) but can be used for any purpose by the account owner. Many people are familiar with this loan option but are confused at how the rules work. Here is a summary of the items to know. For more details, check out the IRS Manual on the subject here.
FAQs on Loans from Your 401(k)
- How much can I loan myself from my 401(k)? 50% of the vested account balance (FMV of the account) of the 401(k) not to exceed $50,000. So if you have a $200,000 401(k) account value you can loan yourself $50,000. If you have $80,000, you can loan yourself $40,000.
- What can I use the funds for? By law, the loan can be used for anything you want. The funds can be used to start a business, for personal investment, for education expenses, to pay bills, to buy a home, or for any personal purpose you want. Some employer plans restrict the purpose of the loan to certain pre-approved purposes.
- How do I pay back the loan to my own 401(k)? The loan must be paid back in substantially level payments, at least quarterly, with-in 5 years. A lump sum payment at the end of the loan is not acceptable. For loans where the funds were used to purchase a home, the loan term can be up to 30 years.
- What interest rate do I pay my 401(k)? The interest rate to be charged is a commercially reasonable rate. This has been interpreted by the industry and the IRS/DOL to be prime plus 2% (currently that would be 5.75%). If the loan was for the purchase of a home for the account owner then the rate is the federal home loan mortgage corporate rate for conventional fixed mortgages. Keep in mind that even though you are paying interest, you are paying that interest to your own 401(k) as opposed to paying a bank or credit card company.
- How many loans can I take? By law, you can take as many loans as you want provided that they do not collectively exceed 50% of the account balance or $50,000. However, if you are taking a loan from a current company plan, you may be restricted to one loan per 12 month period.
- What happens if I don’t pay the loan back? Any amount not re-paid under the note will be considered a distribution and any applicable taxes and penalties will be due by the account owner.
- Can I take a loan from my IRA? No. The loan option is not available to IRA owners. However, if you are self-employed or are starting a new business you can set up a solo or owner only 401(k) (provided you have no other employees than the business owners and spouses) and you can roll your IRA or prior employer 401(k) funds to your new 401(k) and can take a loan from your new solo 401(k) account.
- Can I take a loan from a previous employer 401(k) and use it to start a new business? Many large employer 401(k) plans restrict loans to current employees. As a result, you probably won’t be able to take a loan from the prior 401(k). You may, however, be able to establish your own solo or owner only 401(k) in your new business. You would then roll over your old 401(k) plan to your new solo/owner only 401(k) plan.
- Can I take a loan from my Roth 401(k) account? Yes, so long as your 401(k) plan doesn’t restrict loans from the Roth account.
- What if I have a 401(k) loan and change employers? Many employer plans require you to pay off any outstanding loans within 60 days of your last date of employment. If your new employer offers a 401(k) with a loan option or if you establish a solo/owner only 401(k), you can roll over your prior employer loan/note to your new 401(k).
The 401(k) loan option is a relatively easy and efficient way to use your retirement account funds to start a small business, to pay for non-traditional education expenses, or to consolidate debt to a better rate of interest. If you have more questions about accessing your 401(k) funds, please contact us at the law firm at 602-761-9798.
What is a Self-Directed IRA?
A self directed IRA is an IRA (Roth, Traditional, SEP, Inherited IRA, SIMPLE) where the custodian of the account allows the IRA to invest into any investment allowed by law. These investments typically include; real estate, promissory notes, precious metals, and private company stock. The typical reaction I hear from investors is: “Why haven’t I ever heard of self directed IRAs before, and why can I only invest my current retirement plan into mutual funds or stocks?” The reason is that the large financial institutions that administer most U.S. retirement accounts don’t find it administratively feasible to hold real estate or non-publicly traded assets in retirement plans.
What Can a Self-Directed IRA Invest Into?
Under current law, a retirement account is only restricted from investing in the following:
The most popular self directed retirement account investments include; rental real estate, secured loans to others for real estate, small business stock or LLC interest, and precious metals such as gold or silver. These investments are all allowed by law and can be great assets for investors with experience in these areas.
When self-directing your retirement account you must be aware of the prohibited transaction rules found in IRC 4975. These rules don’t restrict what your account can invest in, but rather, whom your IRA may transact with. In short, the prohibited transaction rules restrict your retirement account from engaging in a transaction with someone who is a disqualified person to your account. A disqualified person to a retirement account includes the account owner, their spouse, children, parents, and certain business partners. So, for example, your retirement account could not buy a rental property that is owned by your father since a purchase of the property would be a transaction with someone who is disqualified to the retirement account (e.g. father). On the other hand, your retirement account could buy a rental property from your cousin, friend, sister, or a random third-party, as these parties are not disqualified persons under the rules.
The rationale behind the prohibited transaction rules is that the federal government doesn’t want tax advantaged accounts conducting transactions between parties who are close enough to the account owner that there could be a transaction designed to avoid or un-fairly minimize tax by altering the true fair market value/price of the investment. The consequence of a prohibited transaction is disqualification of the retirement account as of January 1 of the year the prohibited transaction occurred. In a typical self directed IRA investment, your IRA cusotidan holds your investment in their company name for your IRAs benefit (e.g. property is owned as ABC Trust Company FBO John Smith IRA) and receives the income and pays the expenses for the investment at the account owner’s direction and instruction.
What is an IRA/LLC?
Many self-directed retirement account owners, particularly those buying real estate, use an IRA/LLC as the vehicle to hold their retirement account assets. An IRA/LLC is a special type of LLC, which consists of an IRA (or other retirement account) investing its cash into a newly created LLC. The IRA/LLC is managed by the IRA owner and the IRA owner then directs the LLC investments and the LLC takes title to the assets, pays the expenses to the investment, and receives the income from the investment. There are many restrictions to the IRA owner being manager (such as not receiving compensation or personal benefit) and many laws to consider so please ensure you consult an attorney before establishing an IRA/LLC. For more details on the IRA/LLC structure, the cases, and the structuring options, please refer to my prior blog post here.