Self-Directed IRA Versus Solo 401(k)

SD-Retirement-TipMany 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?

 IRASolo 401K
QualificationMust 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.
Contribution Max$5,500 max annual contribution. Additional $1,000 if over 50.$53,000 max annual contribution (it takes $140K of wage/se income to max out). Contributions are employee and employer.
Traditional & RothYou 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-UpYou 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 preapproved 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 $1,200.
Custodian RequirementAn 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.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.
Investment DetailsA 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.

Conclusion

Based on the differences outlined above, a solo 401(k) is generally a better option for someone who is self-employed and 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 is a Business Partner a Disqualified Person to My Self-Directed IRA?

Image of a blank disqualified persons chart by Mat Sorensen with the text "When is a Business Partner a Disqualified Person to My Self-Directed IRA."Most self directed IRA owners know that their self directed IRA cannot conduct transactions with themselves or certain family members (e.g. spouse, kids, parents, etc.). Most self directed IRA owners also know that their self directed IRA cannot do business with a company they own or that their disqualified family members own 50% or more of. However, one of the most confusing areas of the prohibited transaction rules are the prohibited transaction rules which apply to business partners or officers, directors, and/or highly compensated employees of companies the IRA owner or family members are personally involved in. For example, what if I own a business with a partner? Can my IRA enter into a transaction with that business partner if we aren’t family? Well, it depends.

Disqualified Person Analysis

To analyze the rules you first need to determine whether the company in which the business partner (or officer, or director) is involved in is a company that is owned 50% or more by the IRA owner or their disqualified family members. IRC 4975 (e)(2)(E),(H), (I). So, for example, if my wife and I owned 60% of the business and our partner owned 40% of the business, then this company would be owned 50% or more by disqualified persons.

Once we know that the company is owned 50% or more by disqualified persons, we need to identify all of the officers, directors, highly compensated employees, and 10 % or more owners of that company. In sum, all of these persons are disqualified to the IRAs of the 50% or more owners. In the example above, since my business partner owned 40% of the company, he is a 10% or more owner and as a result he is a disqualified person to my IRA (since my wife and I own 50% or more of the company).

Let’s look at another example. Say that I am a 35% owner of a business with a few other partners who are not disqualified family members to me.  Since I do not own 50% or more of this company, it doesn’t matter who the other partners, officers, or directors, are, as they are not disqualified to my IRA as part of this rule since my ownership (and that of my disqualified family members) is below 50%.

As a final example, let’s say that I own 70% of a company and that I have a partner who owns 5%. Under the rule, my partner or fellow shareholder does not have 10% or greater ownership and as a result they are not disqualified to my IRA. However, if that 5% owner was the President of my company then they would be a disqualified person.

These rules can be tough to understand when you read the code, but if you take the two step analysis you can easily determine what partners, officer, directors, or highly compensated employees are disqualified to your IRA.

Here’s also a quick summary of the rule from my book where I took the text of the tax code and put it into plain language.

Key Persons in Company Owned 50% or More by Disqualified Persons

An officer, director, or 10% or more shareholder, or highly compensated employee (earns 10% or more of the company’s wages) of a company owned by the IRA owner or other disqualified persons. IRC § 4975 (e)(2)(H).

Before investing with someone who is an officer, director, highly compensated employee, or a shareholder/owner in a company you are involved in, please consult these rules and where you are un-clear, seek the advice of competent counsel.

S-Corp Salary/Dividend Split and Reasonable Compensation

One of the most common tax minimization strategies used by operational small business owners is known as the salary/dividend or salary/net income split. This strategy can only be properly executed in an s-corporation where a business owner can pay themselves a portion of income in salary and a portion of income in dividend or net profit. The ultimate goal is to pay as little salary as possible (and therefore as much net income as possible) so as to minimize the amount of self employment taxes that are due.

This strategy cannot be utilized in a c-corporation nor can it be utilized in an LLC or sole proprietorship. It is only possible in an s-corporation as similar income running through a sole proprietorship or an LLC is entirely subject to self employment tax as income cannot be split between salary and net income in an LLC or sole proprietorship. Also, keep in mind that such a strategy is not utilized in passive business structures such as real estate businesses as rental income, interest income, and other passive income is exempt from self employment tax and therefore it is not necessary to implement the income splitting technique of the s-corporation.

In short, the strategy is implemented by “splitting” the income that is payable to the s-corporation owner into two categories: salary and net income (aka dividend). The reason this splitting of income is advantageous is that net income received by the s-corporation owner is not subject to the 15.3% self employment tax that is otherwise due and payable on salary. For every $10,000 of income an s-corporation owner can classify as net income as opposed to salary the business owner will save $1,530. Keep in mind that after about $100,000 of salary the savings of pushing additional income to net income is reduced as the self employment tax rate drops to 2.9%. It is still certainly worth implementing at higher income but the savings are then made at the 2.9% rate.

Watson v. Commissioner

When this strategy was first utilized many years ago, some taxpayers decided to just pay all of their income out as net income and elected to take no salary or wages and therefore pay no self employment tax. This was quickly challenged by the IRS and Revenue Ruling 59-221 was issued which stated that a business owner who renders services to their business must take “reasonable compensation” for the services rendered.  Over the years, the Courts have ruled on many cases of what is reasonable compensation but in 2012 the Courts made a significant ruling where they adjusted a business owners allocation between salary and net income in a case known as Watson v. Commissioner, 668 F.3d 1008 (8th Cir, 2012).

In Watson, the owner/employee Watson was a CPA and took $24,000 of salary a year and about $190,000 of annual net income. The IRS challenged the allocation of $24,000 of salary as being unreasonably too low. Watson lost in the District Court and appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals who re-characterized Watson’s income to $93,000 of salary and about $120,000 of net income. The case is an important one for properly understanding the factors that should be considered in all businesses when determining how much income a business owner can claim as net income instead of salary.  Here are some of those factors.

Factors Determining Net Income

  • Professional services businesses should take a larger portion of salary to net income than those in non-professional services: If the business is a professional services business (e.g. physician, dentist, lawyer, consultant, real estate broker, contractor, etc.) the IRS will more carefully scrutinize the services provided by business owners because the business provides a personal service.
  • Full-time working business owners should take a larger portion of salary to net income than part-time working business owners: If the business owner is involved full time in the business, more salary will be required. If the business owner’s involvement is part time or if they are involved in other businesses, a much lower salary can be justified.
  • Don’t take a salary that is below the salary paid to lower level employees in the business: In the Watson case the Court determined that a salary for Watson of $24,000 was not reasonable as new accountants salaries at his office were more than this.
  • Take a salary that is around the industry average for a person of similar experience in your industry: In the Watson case the Court scrutinized the experience and training of Watson and determined that a salary of $24,000 was not reasonable as accountants with similar experience and training in the industry were paid at least $70,000.

In summary, the salary/net income split is a legitimate tax planning technique for business owners but it is not one in which a business owner making over $200,000 a year can justify taking about 10% of income as salary (as was the case in Watson).  The Court disallowed the 10% salary level but did allow him to take about 43% of his income as salary (and almost 60% as net income). This still resulted in some excellent tax savings.

As a general rule, we recommend that business owners take at least 1/3 of their income as salary and pay self employment tax on those amounts. Many other factors should be considered, such as those outlined above, and every business has a unique situation. The good news is that taking a large portion of income from a business as net income as opposed to salary is alive and valid and there are plenty of taxes to be saved each year by using this strategy. A business owner just can’t get too aggressive and take salary levels that are grossly below what people with similar experience in the industry are paid.