For most American workers and business owners, the first vehicle to save and invest in is your 401(k). The tax benefits and the typical company matching that offers free company money make a 401(k) a great place to save and invest for the long-haul. But what if you’ve maxed out your 401(k) contributions? What else can you do?
Here are the three options you should consider that provide significant tax and financial benefits:
1. Back-Door Roth IRA
This is a really cool option that many clients utilize every year. (I do too.) First, you may be thinking that you can’t do a Roth IRA because your income is too high or because you already maxed out your 401(k). WRONG: It is still possible to do a Roth IRA, but you just have to know the back-door route. The reason it’s called a back-door Roth IRA is because you make a non-deductible traditional IRA contribution (up to $5,500 annual limit, $6,500 if 50 or older). Then, after the non-deductible traditional IRA contribution is made, you then convert the funds to Roth. There is no income limit on Roth conversions, and since you didn’t take a deduction on the non-deductible traditional IRA contribution, there is no tax due on the conversion to Roth. And now, voila, you have $5,500 in your Roth IRA. That’s the back-door route.
There is a road block though for some who already have funds already in traditional IRAs. The Roth conversion ordering rules state that you must first convert your pre-tax traditional IRA funds, which you got a deduction for and now pay tax when you convert, before you are able to convert the non-deductible traditional IRA funds. So, if you have pre-tax traditional IRA funds and you want to do the back-door Roth IRA, you have two options:
First, convert those pre-tax traditional IRA dollars to Roth and pay the taxes on the conversion.
Second, if your 401(k) allows, you can roll those pre-tax traditional IRA dollars into your 401(k). If you don’t have a traditional IRA, you’re on easy street and only need to do the two-step process of making the non-deductible traditional IRA contribution and then convert it to Roth.
You have until April 15th of each year to do this for the prior tax year. Additionally, while the GOP tax-reform restricted Roth re-characterizations, Roth conversions and the back-door Roth IRA route were unaffected. For more detail on the back-door Roth IRA, check out my prior article here.
2. Health Savings Account (HSA)
If you have a high-deductible health insurance plan, you can make contributions to your HSA up until April 15th of each year for the prior tax year. Why make an HSA contribution? Because you get a tax deduction for doing it, and because that money comes out of your HSA tax-free for your medical, dental, or drug costs. You can contribute and get a deduction, above the line, of up to $3,400 if you’re single or for up to $6,750 for family. We all have these out-of-pockets costs, and this is the most efficient way to spend those dollars (from an account you got a tax deduction for putting money into). If you didn’t have a high deductible HSA-qualifying plan by December 1st of the prior year, then the HSA won’t work.
Any amounts you don’t spend on medical can be invested in the account and grow tax-free for your future medical or long-term care. Health savings accounts can also be invested and self-directed into real estate, LLCs, private companies, crypto-currency or other alternative assets. We’ve helped many clients invest these tax-favored funds using a self-directed HSA.
For more details on health savings accounts, check out my partner Mark’s article here.
3. Cash Balance Plan or Defined Benefit Plan
If you’re self-employed you may consider establishing a cash balance plan or a defined benefit plan (aka “pension”), where you can possibly contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The amount of your contribution depends on your income, age, and the age and number of employees you may have. A cash balance plan or defined benefit plan/pension will cost you ten thousand dollars or more in fees to establish, and is far more expensive to maintain and administer. But, if you have the income, it’s a valuable option to consider. For more details on cash balance plans, check out Randy Luebke’s article here.
Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin, and other cryptocurrencies have seen dramatic price increases this year. Have you thought about cashing in? Are you wondering how will you be taxed?
Cryptocurrency is a Capital Asset
The IRS has clearly stated that cryptocurrency (aka virtual currency) is a capital asset like property. And therefore, the buying and selling of it for profit results in short-term capital gain if held for under one year, and long-term capital gain if held for over a year. Short-term capital gain rates are based on your regular income tax bracket, while the long-term capital gains rate is 15-20%, depending on income level. IRS Notice 2014-21.
So, for example, let’s say I bought 10 Bitcoin in June 2017 for $25,000 US dollars when the price of Bitcoin was approximately $2,500. I decide that in December 2017 that I would like to sell my Bitcoin. The price is now approximately $16,500 per Bitcoin, so my holdings are now worth $165,000. As a result, my $25,000 investment has generated a taxable profit of $140,000. Since I owned the Bitcoin for less than one year, the income will be short-term capital gain income and I will pay at my regular federal rate.
If I instead held the cryptocurrency until July 2018, then I would have long-term capital gain and would be paying tax at a much lesser rate.
Any realized gain from the cryptocurrency profit is taxable. This is the case if you exchanged Bitcoin for other cryptocurrency, or for goods or services. In this instance, you take the value of the Bitcoin in US dollars at the time of the exchange for other property and treat whatever gain you have when that Bitcoin was exchanged (at the value of the other property) as your taxable gain. Let’s say you bought 10 Bitcoin in 2015 for $250 per Bitcoin for a total purchase price of $2,500. You decide to exchange one Bitcoin, valued at $16,500 in December 2017, for 17 Ethereum valued at approximately $500 per Ethereum. Your gain on the Bitcoin being exchanged is the value of the Ethereum, $16,500, minus the cost of the Bitcoin, $250, for a long-term capital gain of $16,250.
Cryptocurrency mining is the process of using servers and other computers to verify the blockchain and transactions that are the backbone of the cryptocurrency. This IRS has stated that income from cryptocurrency mining, whether received in dollars or cryptocurrency, is taxable as regular income. Consequently, if you have engaged in the cryptocurrency mining business or are otherwise self-employed doing cryptocurrency mining then the income you received is taxable at your ordinary income rates and it will also be subject to self-employment tax.
Retirement Accounts and Cryptocurrency
Retirement accounts such as IRAs and 401(k) can own Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency. This requires a self-directed IRA or 401(k) and some careful structuring. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, check out my prior article and video here. When gains are made from the sale of cryptocurrency, whether for US dollars or other cryptocurrency, there is no tax owed on the gain. And, if you use a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k), there will be zero tax owed when you pull the funds out at retirement. For traditional IRAs and 401(k)s you pay tax when you withdraw the funds at retirement and these distributions, as is the case for all traditional IRA or 401(k) distributions, are subject to tax at your ordinary income tax rate at the time of distribution.
If your self-directed IRA or 401(k) is invested into cryptocurrency mining, as opposed to holding cryptocurrency for investment, then the income from such mining activities will likely cause unrelated business income tax.
A recent article on Forbes by Bryan Ellis outlines the importance in making sure you understand self-directed IRA rules before you invest. Check out the excellent article and a quote from yours truly here. Also, Bryan has a significant amount of additional resources on his self-directed IRA website which you can access here.
How does the proposed Republican tax reform impact your retirement account? Well, if you save for education expenses for your kids or grand-kids using a Coverdell Education Savings Account, you’re not going to be happy as new contributions to Coverdell accounts are eliminated in the House Plan. Also, both House and Senate bills eliminate the ability to re-characterize Roth IRA conversions back to Traditional IRAs. This was a nice “do-over” the IRS allowed you to use if you regretted converting your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and switched it back to a traditional IRA within certain time limitations. For my prior article on how a Roth IRA re-characterization works, at least for now, check it out here.
The only good news: It could’ve been worse. There was talk of drastic changes that would have essentially called an end to Traditional IRA and 401(k) contributions in favor of Roth-only contributions (or limiting Traditional dollars to $2,400 annually). Luckily, those ideas never made it into the legislation.
Here’s a brief summary of the two major changes effecting IRAs. In addition to the changes effecting IRAs, there are numerous proposals regarding employer retirement plans such as 401(k)s, but those changes only slightly alter the ways those plans function.
Change to IRAs
No More Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) Contributions
Coverdell accounts are used as a vehicle to contribute funds (up to $2k annually per beneficiary) for education expenses. It is usually used by parents or grandparents as an account to invest the money tax-free whereby the money in the account grows without being subject to tax and comes out tax-free for the beneficiary’s education expenses. There is no deduction for the contribution. The current proposal would eliminate the ability to make future Coverdell contributions. Existing accounts may still exist without new contributions or may be rolled to a 529.
House Bill & Senate Amendment to Senate Bill
End Roth IRA Re-characterizations
Under current rules, you can convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and if you later decide that such conversions (and tax due) wasn’t a good idea, you are allowed to undo the conversion and go back to a Traditional IRA.
So what should you do now? If you’ve used Coverdell accounts or wanted to, make 2017 Coverdell contributions because they may be the last time you can do them. Also, if you’ve been thinking of converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, 2017 may be the last year you can do so, and still have the ability to re-characterize back to Traditional if you later decide against it.
It’s finally here: My top ten list of frequently asked self-directed IRA questions! Whether you’re just getting started or you’ve been investing with a self-directed account for decades, make sure you know the answers to these ten questions. In most instances, I’ve linked to more comprehensive articles and videos on the subject. And of course, you can always crack open the best-selling book on the subject for even more information and detail: The Self-Directed IRA Handbook.
1. 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 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.
2. Can I rollover or transfer my existing retirement account to a self-directed IRA?
Well, it depends. Here’s my chart that breaks down every possible scenario:
I have a 401(k) account with a former employer.
Yes, you can rollover to a self directed IRA. If it is a Traditional 401(k), it will be a self-directed IRA. If it is a Roth 401(k), it will be a self-directed Roth IRA.
I have a 403(b) account with a former employer.
Yes, you can roll-over to a Traditional self-directed IRA.
I have a Traditional IRA with a bank or brokerage.
Yes, you can transfer to a self-directed IRA.
I have a Roth IRA with a bank or brokerage.
Yes, you can transfer to a self-directed Roth IRA.
I inherited an IRA and keep the account with a brokerage or bank as an inherited IRA.
Yes, you can transfer to a self-directed inherited IRA.
I don’t have any retirement accounts but want to establish a new self-directed IRA.
Yes, you can establish a new Traditional or Roth self-directed IRA, and can make new contributions according to the contribution limits and rules found in IRS Publication 590.
I have a 401(k) or other company plan with a current employer.
No, in most instances your current employer’s plan will restrict you from rolling funds out of that plan. However, some plans do allow for an in-service withdrawal if you are at retirement age.
3. What can a self-directed IRA invest in?
Under current law, a retirement account is only restricted from investing in the following:
Collectibles such as: Art, stamps, coins, alcoholic beverages, or antiques (IRC 408(m));
And, any investment that constitutes a prohibited transaction pursuant to ERISA and/or IRC 4975 (e.g. purchase of any investment from a disqualified person such as a close family member to the retirement account owner).
The most popular self-directed retirement account investments include:
Rental real estate;
Secured loans to others for real estate (trust deed lending);
Private 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.
4. What restrictions are there on using a self-directed IRA?
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.
Here’s a diagram outlining who is disqualified to your IRA:
Prohibited transactions should be avoided as the consequence is distribution of the entire account involved.
5. Can my self-directed IRA invest in my personal business, company, or deal?
No, it would violate the prohibited transaction rules if your IRA transacted with you personally (or with a company you own). In addition, your IRA cannot transact with or benefit anyone who is a disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner, spouse, children, parents, spouses of children, etc.)
6. What is a checkbook-control IRA or IRA/LLC?
Many self-directed retirement account owners, particularly those buying real estate, use an IRA/LLC (aka “checkbook-control IRA”) 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 to take title to the assets, pay the expenses to the investment, and receive the income from the investment. There are many restrictions against the IRA owner being the 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, including cases and structuring options, please refer to my blog post, “New Case Answers Important Questions about IRA/LLCs.”
Here’s a simple diagram that outlines how the IRA/LLC (checkbook-control IRA) operates:
7. Can my IRA invest cash and can I get a loan to buy real estate with my IRA?
Your IRA can buy real estate using its own cash and a loan/mortgage to acquire the property. Whenever you leverage your IRA with debt, however, you must be aware of two things. First, the loan your IRA obtains must be a non-recourse loan. A non-recourse loan is made by the lender against the asset, and in the event of default the sole recourse of the lender is to foreclose and take back the asset. The lender cannot pursue the IRA or the IRA owner for any deficiency. Second, your IRA may be subject to a tax known as unrelated debt financed income tax (UDFI/UBIT).
8. Are there any tax traps? What about UBIT/UBTI?
The tax UBIT applies when your IRA receives “unrelated business income.” However, if your IRA receives investment income, then that income is exempt from UBIT tax. Investment income exempt from UBIT includes the following.
Real Estate Rental Income (IRC 512(b)(3)) – Rent from real estate is investment income, and is exempt from UBIT.
Interest Income (IRC 512(b)(1)) – Interest and points made from the money lending is investment income, and is exempt from UBIT.
Capital Gain Income (IRC 512(b)(5)) – The sale, exchange, or disposition of assets is investment income, and is exempt from UBIT.
Dividend Income (IRC 512(b)(1)) –Dividend income from a C-Corp where the company paid corporate tax is investment income, and exempt from UBIT.
Royalty Income (IRC 512(b)(2)) –Royalty income derived from intangible property rights, such as intellectual property, and from oil/gas and mineral leasing activities is investment income, and is exempt from UBIT.
So, make sure your IRA receives investment income as opposed to “business income”.
There are two common areas where self-directed IRA investors run into UBIT issues and are outside of the exemptions outlined above. The first occurs when an IRA invests and buys LLC ownership in an operating business (e.g. sells goods or services) that is structured as a pass-thru entity for taxes (e.g. partnership), and does not pay corporate taxes. The income from the LLC flows to its owners and would be ordinary income. If the company has net taxable income, it will flow down to the IRA as ordinary income on the K-1, and this will cause tax to the IRA as this will be business income and it does not fit into one of the investment income exemptions. If your IRA has UBIT income, it must file it’s own tax return using IRS Form 990-T. The second instance occurs when the IRA invests into real estate activities whereby the IRA is deemed to be in the business of real estate as opposed to investing in real estate (e.g. real estate development, construction, significant short-term real estate flips).
9. What is unrelated debt financed income (UDFI)?
If an IRA uses debt to buy an investment, then the income attributable to the debt is subject to UBIT. This income is referred to as “unrelated debt financed income” (UDFI), and it causes UBIT. The most common situation occurs when an IRA buys real estate with a non-recourse loan. For example, let’s say an IRA buys a rental property for $100,000, and that $40,000 came from the IRA and $60,000 came from a non-recourse loan. The property is thus 60% leveraged, and as a result, 60% of the income is not a result of the IRAs investment, but the result of the debt invested. Because of this debt, which is not retirement plan money, the IRS requires tax to be paid on 60% of the income. So, if there is $10K of net rental income on the property then $6K would be UDFI and would be subject to UBIT taxes.
10. Should I use a solo 401(k) instead of a self-directed IRA?
A solo 401(k) is a great self-directed account option, and can be used instead of an IRA for persons who are self-employed with no other employees (other than business owners and spouses). If you are not self-employed, then the solo K will not work in your situation.
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 ($54,000 annually versus $5,500 annually for an IRA). 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 which can be rolled over and invested via a self-directed IRA as the self-directed IRA is easier and cheaper to establish.
Another major consideration in deciding between a solo 401(k) and a self-directed IRA is whether there will be debt on real estate investments. If there is debt and 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.
Here’s what the solo 401(k) look like and how the money flows:
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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] 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."
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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.