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.
A SEP IRA is a powerful retirement account used by many self-employed persons and business owners. It is particularly attractive as you can contribute up to $56,000 into it annually. That’s in comparison to a Traditional IRA, where you can only contribute up to $6,000 a year. “But what if I have employees? If I have employees in my business do I need to offer then plan and contribute for them?” The answer is “yes” and “no,” as it depends on your employees. The devil’s – or perhaps we should say loopholes – in the details.
Keep in mind that the money contributed to a SEP IRA is an “employer contribution.” This means that the money comes from the company and is set at a maximum of 25% of the employee’s wage. So, if you are the only employee and you make $100,000 that year, the company can contribute $25,000 to the SEP IRA. For a business owner with no employees, it doesn’t really make a difference whether you pay into the SEP IRA from your company’s account or from your personal account as its all effectively your money in the end.
However, once you have employees, you are required to offer the same SEP IRA and same employer contribution to them that you offer to yourself. Now, you will likely care whether that money comes from the employee’s wages or from the company’s account. So, let’s say you had an S-Corporation and had a W-2 of $100,000, and you had one employee who had a W-2 of $40,000. The company would contribute $25,000 to your SEP IRA account (if doing the 25% max rate) and would also contribute $10,000 to the employee’s SEP IRA. While you, as the business owner, may be excited about contributing $25,000 into your own SEP IRA from the company’s funds, you may be less excited about contributing $10,000 to an employee’s SEP IRA account from the company’s funds. But, this is what’s required if the employee is eligible.
Employee Eligibility Loophole and Flexibility
The good news is that you only need to offer the SEP IRA to “eligible employees,” and you can make employees “ineligible” if they have not worked for you for 3 years out of the prior 5 years (see IRS SEP IRA FAQs). In other words, until someone has worked for the company for at least 3 years, you do not need to offer the SEP IRA to them. For many small businesses, self-employed persons and new companies, a SEP IRA can be an excellent choice for the business owner as they may be the only eligible person who has worked for the company for 3 years. You can also restrict eligibility if an employee has not yet turned 21. This 3 year employee eligibility rule under a SEP IRA is far superior to the 1 year employee eligibility rule that would apply when using a Solo K upon hiring employees.
Keep in mind that you are subject to the same eligibility rules. So, if this is a new company, then the strategy of offering the plan to yourself while restricting others doesn’t work so well. But, as is usually the case, if you have worked the business for years before having an employee, then you can set the work year requirement to make yourself eligible while setting it out up to 3 years for any employees.
If an employee has worked 3 out of the prior 5 years and is now eligible, the business owner can decide to cease the SEP IRA plan (and their own contributions), and can instead move to a 401(k) or other more common retirement plan structure where the company is not required to offer such a generous employer contribution.
A SEP IRA can be self-directed and invested into real estate, LLCs, private stock, notes, and precious metals. Directed IRA establishes SEP IRA accounts for self-directed investors and you can set-up an account entirely online. Learn more now at www.directedira.com.
There are 28 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 (e.g. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies). 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. My company, Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company, handles self-directed IRAs and our clients have invested millions in private companies.
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 or 55 under some plans). 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”, “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 37% at about $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 $28 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.
Every buyer of a small business should consider the following three key legal issues when acquiring a business.
1. Buy Assets and Not Liabilities.
Most small business purchases are done as what are called “Asset Purchases”. In an Asset Purchase the buyer of the business acquires the assets of the business only. The assets include the goodwill, name, equipment, supplies, inventory, customers, etc. According to the terms of a properly drafted Asset Purchase Agreement, the assets do not include the prior owner’s business liabilities (the known or unknown). Under an Asset Purchase the buyer typically establishes a new company which will operate the business. This new company is free from the prior company’s liabilities and actions.
A “Stock Purchase” on the other hand occurs when the buyer acquires the stock or LLC units of the existing business. There are a few downsides to acquiring a business under a stock purchase. First, if you buy the stock or units of an existing company then you get the existing assets AND the existing liabilities of the acquired company. Since a new buyer hasn’t operated the business it is impossible for them to accurately quantify the existing liabilities. The second downside to a Stock Purchase is that the new owner of the company takes the current tax position of the departing owner when it comes to writing off equipment and other items in the company at the time of purchase. The downside to this is that the seller of the business may have already fully written off these items leaving the new business owner with little business assets to depreciate (despite a significant financial investment). If, on the other hand, the buyer acquired the “assets” in an Asset Purchase the buyer would depreciate and expense those assets as the new business owner chooses and in the most aggressive manner possible. Bottom line, an Asset Purchase has less liability risk and has better tax benefits that will allow the buyer to generate better tax write-offs and deductions over the life of the business.
2. Negotiate For Some Seller Financed Terms.
Many small business purchases include some form of seller financed terms whereby the seller agrees to be paid a portion of the purchase price over time via a promissory note. Seller financing terms are excellent for the buyer because they keep the seller interested and motivated in the buyer’s success since business failure typically means that the buyer wont be able to fully pay the seller. If the seller gets all of their money at closing then the seller is typically less interested in helping transition the business to the new owner as the seller has already been paid in full. Also, if the seller misrepresented something in the business during the sale that results in financial loss to the buyer, the buyer can offset the loss or costs incurred by amounts the buyer owes the seller on the note. In sum, the seller financed note gives the buyer some leverage to make sure the value in the business is properly and fairly transferred.
3. Conduct Adequate Due Diligence.
While it may go without saying that a buyer of a business should conduct adequate due diligence, you would be surprised at how many business purchases occur simply based on the statements or e-mails of a seller as opposed to actual tax returns or third party financials showing the financial condition of the business. A few due diligence items to consider are; get copies of the prior tax returns for the company, get copies of third party financials, make the seller complete a due diligence questionnaire where the seller represents the condition of the business to the buyer (similar to what you complete when you sell a house to someone). A lawyer with experience in business transactions can help significantly in conducting the due diligence and in drafting the final documents.
Buying an existing business is not only a significant financial commitment but is also a significant time commitment. Make sure the business is something worth your time and money before you sign. Oh, and make sure you get a well drafted set of purchase documents to sign.
Do you need access to your retirement account funds to start a business, pay for education expenses or training, make a personal investment, or 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. The loan rules from the IRS are the same whether it is your solo 401(k) or a 401(k) with your current employer. 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 $200,000 in your 401(k) you can loan yourself $50,000. If you have $80,000, you can loan yourself $40,000. If your spouse has an account, they can take a loan from their 401(k) too under the same rules (50% of the account balance not to exceed $50K).
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, personal investment, education expenses, pay bills, buy a home, or any personal purpose you want. Some employer plans restrict the purpose of the loan to certain pre-approved purposes but that is less common. Most don’t place restrictions. If you used the funds for business purposes, then you can expense the interest you and your business are paying back to your 401(k).
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, within 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 7% as prime is 5%). 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 repaid 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), then 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, and would take a loan from that new 401(k).
Can I take a loan from my Roth 401(k) account?
Some plans restrict this, but it is possible to take a loan from the Roth designated portion of your 401(k).
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). Also, many plans have waivers to avoid total payoff (not payments) and give you time for repayment if you leave employment.
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 our attorneys at KKOS Lawyers by phone at (602) 761-9798 or visit kkoslawyers.com.
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The "Self Directed IRA Handbook" by attorney Mat Sorensen is the most comprehensive book ever written about one of the best investment and retirement savings tools ever created: the Self-Directed IRA. Mat has performed the impossible by effectively delivering complex information in an easily understandable manner for the layperson, while providing the necessary legal basis to suit the professional. Mat's book is a "must read" for investors, attorneys, CPAs, and other professionals and other interested individuals wanting to learn about all there is to know about Self-Directed IRAs.
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Mat's book is an excellent resource for self directed IRA owners and their advisors. It is the first of its kind in our industry. Mat has truly written an “Authoritative Guide” for self directed IRAs.
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Mark J. Kohler
Mat is truly an expert on self directed IRAs, and his book is the one book that every self directed IRA investor should read.
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I was referred to Matt for help in setting up an IRA owned LLC. Matt and his team did an incredible job completing the work in a few short days. The process was professional, efficient and cost effective. I continue to rely on Matt for guidance running the LLC and related real estate matters. Not only is Matt a good lawyer, he runs a great office. It is easy for me to recommend Matt and his team.
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[Mat] is completely devoted to his clients and continually strives to stay abreast of changes and updates in the law. Mat is an unbelievably hard worker and...I don't hesitate to recommend Mat's services to anyone as I know he will take care of them and give them simple, concise, and straightforward solutions to any legal issue they may be facing.
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Mathew is an excellent attorney, well versed in the Self-Directed IRA market…His ability to distil the complexities of the Self-Directed IRA so that the average person can understand them, and ensure that they don't get "tripped up" is second to none. Anyone interested in this Self-Directed IRA Market would do well to connect with Mathew and learn from the best.
"Mat's book is an excellent resource for self directed IRA owners and their advisors. It is the first of its kind in our industry. Mat has truly written an“Authoritative Guide” for self directed IRAs."
"Mat is an excellent attorney, well versed in the Self-Directed IRA market...His ability to distill the complexities of the Self-Directed IRA so that the average person can understand them, and ensure that they don't get "tripped up" is second to none.
"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."
"The Self Directed IRA Handbook by attorney Mat Sorensen is the most comprehensive book ever written about one of the best investment and retirement savings tools ever created: the Self-Directed IRA."
Founder and Retired CEO, PENSCO Trust Company
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.