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 (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. 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”, “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.
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?
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.
$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 & 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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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Tom W. Anderson
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 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.