Tax Court Rules Against Self-Directed IRA Owner Who Failed to Properly Make a Real Estate Investment

Image of US Tax Court logo with text "D:\Content\Graphics\Art\Thomas\MNS Blog\140729_Tax Court Rules Against Self-Directed IRA Owner Who Failed to Properly Make a Real Estate Investment"In a recent U.S. Tax Court case, the Court ruled against an IRA owner and deemed his IRA distributed and taxable as the IRA owner failed to properly execute his intended self-directed IRA real estate investment. Dabney v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-108.

The IRA owner had an IRA at Charles Schwab and intended to use the IRA to acquire real estate in Brian Head, UT. Upon conducting research Mr. Dabney learned that an IRA could own real estate. However, instead of rolling or transferring his IRA funds to a self directed IRA custodian who would allow his IRA to own real estate, Mr. Dabney took a distribution of the IRA and directed Schwab to wire the funds to closing for the purchase of the property. Additionally, he instructed title and eventually received a deed in the name of his Schwab IRA.

The problem was that rather than invest his IRA into real estate he instead distributed his IRA and use the distributed fund to buy real estate outside of his IRA. Charles Schwab issued Mr. Dabney a 1099-R for that distribution and Mr. Dabney contested the 1099-R and the taxes owed as a result arguing that the funds were used to buy a property owned by his Schwab IRA. Mr. Dabney argued that Charles Schwab made a mistake. However, the Court ruled against him because his funds were distributed out of his Charles Schwab IRA and because his IRA funds and the real estate were not held by a self-directed IRA custodian that allowed for IRAs to own real estate. The Court stated that an IRA can certainly hold real estate but that Charles Schwab’s policies did not allow for Mr. Dabney’s IRA to own real estate and since his custodian would not hold the real estate as an asset of his IRA that it was deemed distributed.

The lesson to be learned from the Dabney case is that in order to properly execute a self-directed IRA investment into an asset such as real estate, the IRA owner needs to roll over or transfer their IRA funds first to a self-directed IRA custodian who allows the IRA to own real estate and then that self-directed IRA will actually take title and ownership to the IRA asset directly. While these rules seem simple, I’d estimate that I speak to at least one or two IRA owners a year who took a distribution from an IRA and used those funds to buy real estate (or some other alternative asset) thinking that the real estate would still be owned by their IRA and that the funds would not be distributed and subject to tax. The confusion usually arises with the non-self directed custodian who misunderstands what the the account owner is trying to do (invest the IRA, not distribute it). Keep in mind, that in order to own real estate with a self-directed IRA, you must have a self-directed IRA custodian.

How to Document and Write Down a Failed IRA Investment

Photo of a man holding his head in front of three large stacks of file folders with the text " How to Document and Write Down a Failed IRA Investment."While every self directed IRA investor enters into investments with high hopes and expectations of large gains, sometimes an IRA has to declare a loss on its investments and sometimes those losses are total losses. However, how does an IRA document a loss on a private partnership investment or an uncollectible promissory note investment? Two Tax Court opinions released today show us what not to do. Berks v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Opinion 2014-2, Gist v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Opinion 2014-1.

Berks v. Commissioner and Gist v. Commissioner

In Berks and Gist, self directed IRA owners invested their IRAs into various real estate partnerships and had equity interests and promissory note interests. Approximately five years after the investments were made, the IRA owners sought to declare the values on all of the investments worthless as the partnerships were no longer in business and as the IRA owner was told by their friend who they invested with that the investments were worthless. The IRA custodian for Berks and Gist sought additional documentation before agreeing to write down the value of the investments. Writing down the value of an investment and closing an account is a red flag for the custodian and the IRS as both want to ensure that IRA owners are not unfairly writing down investments in an effort to avoid taking distributions from the IRA which are taxable. As a result, the IRA custodian sought documentation as to the valuation change and upon receiving no documentation; the IRA custodian distributed the account to the IRA owners with the original investment amounts made from the account.

The self directed IRA accounts were closed by the custodian and the IRA owners were responsible for the taxes due from the 1099-R as well as accuracy related penalties. Eventually the un-claimed 1099-R went into collections with the IRS and the IRS sought payment of the additional taxes owed. The taxpayers disputed the amounts owed and took the case to Tax Court. The case eventually proceeded to trial and the taxpayers both lost in separate cases because they went into the case with no documentation or evidence of collection attempts. Instead, there was only testimony from the IRA owner and from their advisor that assist them in the investments. In Berks, the Court stated, “…[the IRA owner] simply took Mr. Blazer [their friend they invested with] at his word, and they apparently never saw the need to request any documentation that would substantiate that the partnerships had failed or that the promissory notes in the IRA accounts had become worthless.” Accordingly, the Court ruled against the IRA owners and held that the investment values as reported by the custodian (the initial investment amounts) were the best representation of fair market value. As a result, the IRA owners were subject to taxes owed on the higher valuation amounts.

I handled a very similar case to this one in Tax Court myself. In my case, the case resulted in the IRS reducing the valuation of the distributed IRA down to the proper discounted fair market valuation the IRA owner was seeking. As a contrast to what the taxpayers did to document their losses in Berks and Gist (e.g., no documents or records), I have outlined the steps that should be taken to properly document a loss with your IRA custodian and/or with the IRS/Tax Court.

Documenting a Loss/Failed Investment

  1. Hire a Third Party to Prepare an Opinion as to Value. Your custodian, the IRS, and the Tax Court all want to see an independent person’s opinion as to the value of an investment.
  2. Provide Accounting Records Showing Losses and No Profits/Income. In my Tax Court case on the same issue (obviously different facts and investments), we were able to re-construct the accounting records and losses from the company that demonstrated the significant valuation change. These accounting records we assembled were accompanied by financial records and third party documents which supported our numbers. The IRS agreed with our decreased valuation before trial, and dismissed their case against our client.
  3. Document Fraud. If fraud was involved by persons receiving the income. Was a lawsuit filed? Were complaints made to regulatory bodies (e.g. SEC or state divisions of securities)? Provide those documents to your custodian.
  4. If the Investment Losses are from a Un-Collectible Promissory Note.
    1. Engage a lawyer or collection agency to make collection efforts. Keeps documents of their collection efforts.
    2. If the borrower filed bankruptcy, provide the bankruptcy documentation.
    3.  If the loan is totally un-collectible, Issue a 1099-C (Forgiveness of Debt Income to the Defaulted Borrower, you’ll need the borrower’s SSN/EIN for this).

The best way to document an investment loss is to provide a third party valuation to your custodian.  A custodian cannot accept an e-mail or letter from the IRA owner saying the investments didn’t pan out. If a third party opinion as to value cannot be produced, you’ll need to provide some of the records and documents I outlined above to demonstrate the loss. Remember, as Tom Cruise said in A Few Good Men, “It doesn’t matter what happened. It only matters what I can prove.” To prove an investment loss in your IRA, you’ll need documents and records showing what went wrong.

New Case Answers Important Questions About IRA/LLCs

Image of the US Tax Court logo with the text "New Case Answers Important Questions About IRA/LLCs"Can my IRA own substantially all of the ownership of an LLC? Can my IRA/LLC pay a salary to me for serving as the manager of the IRA/LLC? Last week the U.S. Tax Court issued an opinion in the case of Ellis v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-245 and answered both of these questions.

In Ellis, the Tax Court resolved two questions posed by the IRS. First, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when his IRA acquired 98% of the membership interest in CST, LLC? And second, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when CST, LLC (owned 98% by his IRA) paid him compensation for serving as the manager?

Analyzing Ellis v. Commissioner

As to the first question, the Tax Court held that Mr. Ellis’ IRA did NOT engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquired 98% of the ownership of a newly established LLC. The other 2% was owned by an un-related person who was not part of the case and whose ownership did not have an impact on the decision. The IRS contended that a prohibited transaction occurred when the IRA bought ownership of CST, LLC. The Court disagreed, however, and held that the IRA’s purchase of the initial membership interest of the LLC was NOT a prohibited transaction. The Court stated that the IRA’s purchase of membership interest in a new LLC is analogous to prior holdings of the Court whereby the Court held that an IRA does not engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquires the initial shares of a new corporation. Similarly, the court held that a new LLC is not a disqualified person to an IRA under the prohibited transaction rules and as a result an IRA may invest and own the ownership of the LLC. IRC § 4975(e)(2)(G), Swanson V. Commissioner, 106 T.C. 76, 88 (1996). Consequently, the Court’s ruling means that it is NOT a prohibited transaction for an IRA to acquire substantially all or all of the ownership of a new LLC.

As to the second question, the Tax Court held that it was a prohibited transaction for the LLC owned substantially by Mr. Ellis’ IRA to pay compensation to Mr. Ellis personally. The court reasoned that, “In causing CST [the IRA/LLC] to pay him [IRA owner] compensation, Mr. Ellis engaged in the transfer of plan income or assets for his own benefit in violation of section 4975 (c)(1)(d).” This type of prohibited transaction is often times referred to as a self dealing prohibited transaction and occurs when the IRA owner personally benefits from his IRA’s investments. The Court looked to the operating agreement of the LLC which authorized payment to Mr. Ellis for serving as the general manager and also the actual records of the LLC which showed the payments to Mr. Ellis. When using an IRA/LLC, one of the many important clauses in the operating agreement is one which restricts compensation to the IRA owner or any other disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner’s spouse or kids). Also, the actual payment and transaction records of the IRA/LLC will be analyzed so it is important that both the LLC documents and the actual payment records do not allow for or result in payment from the IRA/LLC to disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner).

It is also important to note that the Tax Court rejected Mr. Ellis’ argument that the payments were exempt from the prohibited transaction rules under section 4975 (d)(10). Section (d)(10) provides an exemption to the prohibited transaction rules for payments from an IRA to a disqualified person [e.g. IRA owner] for services rendered to manage the IRA. The Tax Court rejected this argument stating that the payments from the IRA/LLC were not for management of the IRA but for management of the IRA/LLC and its business activities. In this case, the IRA owner was actively involved as the general manager of the IRA/LLC which LLC bought and sold cars. As a result, the Court held that the payments were not exempt and constituted a prohibited transaction.

I was happy to read this case and find the Court’s conclusions because it matches the same opinion and advice we have been giving clients regarding IRA/LLCs for nearly ten years: that a newly established LLC owned by an IRA does not constitute a prohibited transaction but the IRA/LLC cannot pay the IRA owner (or any other disqualified person) compensation for managing the IRA/LLC.