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.
IRAs are the most overlooked opportunity in real estate. Let me explain.
First, there are over 9 Trillion Dollars in IRA accounts in the U.S. This number is staggering and makes IRAs one of the largest sections of investable cash in the world. Source, Investment Company Institute & Federal Reserve Board. But what does this have to do with real estate? Well, contrary to popular belief, IRAs have always been able to invest in and own real estate. They can own single family rentals, or flip properties, or own LLCs that own multi-family or commercial real estate. They can also invest as a private lender on real estate.
At this point in the IRA and real estate conversion. I’m usually asked, why have I never heard of this before? Well, the major providers of IRAs have generally found real estate to be “administratively unfeasible” as it takes more work to handle and administer than a publicly traded stock or REIT does. In other words, the brokerage and insurance firms who administer most IRAs restrict their IRAs to…well…the stuff they sell like publicly traded stock, mutual funds, and annuities. You’ve always been able to own real estate in an IRA but there have been few IRA custodians who allow it and as a result it isn’t as widely known as it should be. This have been changing over the past decades as awareness has spread.
IRAs can own single-family rental properties. IRAs can own properties being flipped for profit. IRAs can invest in small private LLCs that own commercial properties or multi-family properties with other individuals or IRAs. IRAs can own options on real estate. And IRAs can lend money secured to other real estate investors as a private investor or hard money lender. You can’t, however, buy real estate for personal use or for use by certain disqualified family members. The assets owned by your IRA must be held for investment purposes.
In sum, any real estate owned for investment purposes can be owned by an IRA. The law has very few restrictions on assets owned by a retirement account. In fact, the only investment assets restricted for IRAs is life insurance, collectible items (e.g. art, antique car), and s-corporation stock. IRC 408(m);IRC 408(a)(3);IRC § 1361 (b)(1)(B). So all investment real estate is fair game for IRAs.
To own real estate with an IRA, you must establish what is called a self-directed IRA and transfer the funds from your current IRA provider (or prior employer 401(k)) to the “self-directed IRA” provider. There are many companies who offer these types of accounts, like my own company, Directed IRA and Directed Trust Company.
What is a Self-Directed IRA?
A self-directed IRA is an IRA that can invest into any investment allowed by law. Real estate is the most common investment for self-directed IRAs but they can also be invested into start-ups, private equity funds, venture capital funds, precious metals, and even crypto-currency. Let’s focus on real estate though.
There are a few critical issues to consider when buying real estate with an IRA.
The IRA Owns the Property, Not You Personally
Let’s go over a real estate rental or property you plan to flip with the IRA. The purchase contract to buy the real estate must be in the name of the IRA and the deed to the property will be in the name of the IRA. The IRA funds, including the earnest money deposit, will come from the IRA account. Keep in mind, the IRA account owner is not buying the property so the contract should not be in their personal name nor should the IRA owner’s personal funds be used. IRAs are held in the name of the custodian of an IRA. So, for example, if your IRA is with my company, Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company, the titling of your IRA would be Directed Trust Company FBO John Doe IRA. That is the name of the buyer on the contract and is the name on title to the property.
Improvement costs and expenses for the IRA owned property must be paid by your IRA and not personally by the IRA owner. Conversely, when there is rental income on the property or when the property sells for a gain then that income goes back into the IRA. Now, one of the huge perks of investing with an IRA is that there is no tax when the IRA makes money. That works with buying and selling stock for gain as well as buying and selling real estate for gain. Consequently, the rental income and the income when you sell the property is not taxable. If this is a Traditional IRA, then the money comes out tax-deferred at retirement and you pay tax as you draw it out. But if it is a Roth IRA, then money comes out tax-free at retirement…so put your best real estate deals in your Roth IRA. But remember, even the Traditional IRA grows tax-deferred with all income accumulating and growing until retirement.
Avoid Prohibited Transactions
When self-directing your retirement account, you must be aware of the prohibited transaction rules found in IRC 4975. These rules restrict WHOM your account may transact with, not what kind of investment your account may own. 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). Similarly, you couldn’t buy a rental property from a third-party and then rent to your child as your child is a disqualified person. On the other hand, your retirement account could buy real estate from your cousin, friend, sister, or a third-party, as these parties are not disqualified persons under the rules.
A prohibited transaction can also arise if there is self-dealing where the IRA owner or disqualified family members are personally benefitting or making money from the IRAs investments. For example, if you are a real estate agent/broker and your IRA buys real estate you cannot receive the buyer’s agent commission as that would result in a financial benefit to you personally. You’d have to waive this fee and have the purchase price reduced or have someone else represent the IRA.
If an IRA engages in a prohibited transaction, the entire IRA account involved is deemed distributed and is no longer an IRA. Taxes and possible early withdrawal penalties apply under the normal distribution rules.
Use an IRA Owned LLC (aka, IRA/LLC or checkbook control IRA)
Many self-directed retirement account owners, particularly those buying real estate, use an IRA owned LLC as the vehicle to hold their retirement account assets. Under the IRA/LLC structure, the IRA typically owns the LLC 100% and the LLC in turn owns the real estate So, rather than buying real estate and owning it directly in the IRA custodian’s name, your IRA would invest and own an LLC and the LLC in turn would own the real estate.
The IRA/LLC is typically managed by the IRA owner. Under the structure, the IRA owns all of the membership/ownership units of the LLC but the IRA owner can serve as the manager of the LLC. Manager of an LLC is like the president of a corporation. The manager can sign for the LLC and can act on behalf of the LLC. As manager of the LLC, the IRA owner would establish an LLC bank checking account for the LLC and the IRA funds would be invested and deposited into that LLC business checking account. Because the IRA is funding all the investment dollars into the LLC, the IRA owns 100% of the LLC.
Now, the LLC is funded with the IRA cash and the IRA owner is the manager of the LLC. The IRA owner can decide how much cash to invest into the LLC from the IRA depending on the real estate they are planning to buy with the IRA/LLC. When offers to purchase real estate are made with an IRA/LLC, the LLC is the buyer on the real estate purchase contract and the earnest money deposit and final funds to close on the property would come from the LLC bank checking account. The IRA owner, as manager of the LLC, signs the real estate purchase contract and has control of the LLC bank checking account and can sign checks or send wires for the LLC account. Keep in mind, the LLC is owned 100% by the IRA and the LLC funds cannot be used for personal purposes and cannot be used to pay the IRA owner. If you ever want to take money from the IRA/LLC, you must send money from the LLC bank account back to the IRA (since the IRA owns the LLC) and you then take a distribution from the IRA.
And lastly, the IRA/LLC docs are unique and most contain IRA provisions in the LLC operating agreement and subscription sections. As a result, you should use a lawyer who is familiar with IRA/LLCs as many IRA custodians who allow for IRA/LLCs require an attorney or CPA to sign off on the docs. My law firm, KKOS Lawyers, has been drafting IRA/LLCs for over 12 years and charges a flat fee of $800 plus state filing fees. There are more complex IRA/LLC structures that involve multiple IRAs (e.g. spouses or other investors) and or combinations of IRAs and individuals and those structures are called Multi-Member IRA/LLCs and typically cost more to set-up.
How to Properly Get a Mortgage Loan With Your IRA?
Your IRA, or IRA/LLC, can get a mortgage loan when you buy real estate, but you need to know two things before you do.
First, the loan must be non-recourse to the IRA owner as the rules regarding IRAs do not allow the IRA owner to personally be responsible for the loan or to personally extend credit to the IRA. Under a non-recourse loan, the bank lends money to the IRA, or IRA/LLC, and gets a deed of trust or mortgage against the property securing the loan. In the event of default, the lender can foreclose and take the property back but cannot go after the IRA or the IRA owner for any deficiency in the loan. Because the lender’s ability to collect is limited to the property they loaned on, the banks who lend to IRAs require 30-40% down. There are several banks who specialize in these non-recourse loans to IRAs and an IRA owner is best served by using a bank or private lender who routinely provides these type of non-recourse loans.
Second, there is a tax called unrelated debt financed income tax (“UDFI”) that applies to an IRA when the IRA leverages its investment dollars with debt. Essentially, the IRS will tax the income from the debt invested while leaving the percent of the deal attributed to the IRAs cash investment not subject to tax. So, for example, let’s say your IRA bought a rental property for $100k with the IRA putting $40k cash down and getting a non-recourse loan for $60k. To the IRS, 40% of this deal is the IRA funds and 40% of the income is not subject to tax while the other 60% is non-IRA funds and that 60% is subject to tax. The tax on this 60% is UDFI tax. The tax rate on UDFI is the trust tax rates which maxes out at 34% on rental income. This is after expenses of course; which expenses include depreciation.
Upon the sale of the property, the IRS allows you to use the capital gains tax rate for the UDFI tax so you can move down from the 34% rate to the max long-term capital gains rate of 20%. Now technically, UDFI is a form of UBIT tax discussed below. But it applies in a very different way, when there is debt, so I explain it separately.
Many self-directed IRA investors will only buy real estate with cash in their IRA and won’t bother with a non-recourse loan and the UDFI tax burden while others view the UDFI tax as a cost of doing business and see debt as a tool to buy more property and thereby increase overall returns. Keep in mind, UDFI tax is only due on net rental income or net gain upon sale and this is after property expenses and depreciation expense.
Watch Out for Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT)?
There is a tax that can apply to an IRA’s income called unrelated business income tax (“UBIT”). Usually, when we think of IRAs, we aren’t expecting there to be taxes on the income and this is typically the case. However, there are a few situations where IRAs will have to pay tax on the income they make. These tax situations arise when the income being made is considered “business income” (aka, ordinary income) as opposed to investment income. Most real estate income is automatically exempt from UBIT. Exempt income from UBIT includes rental real estate income, capital gain income when you sell real estate, and interest income when you lend money on real estate. IRC 512. So let’s go over the common situations where UBIT tax is generally due.
First, there is the instance of debt mentioned above which causes UDFI. UDFI is a form of UBIT and applies to the profits attributable to the debt involved.
Second, if the IRA is doing real estate development activities, or is otherwise invested in real estate projects that create ordinary income it will need to pay UBIT tax on the profits. Real estate development income that is ordinary income in nature, as opposed to long-term capital gain, will cause UBIT for the IRA. It is possible to do real estate development with an IRA and hold the property for investment purposes. If a real estate development was done and the property held for investment, then the IRA would avoid UBIT tax. That being said, you should carefully consult with your tax lawyer or CPA on the details of your strategy and whether UBIT would apply.
The last situation where UBIT can apply is when you flip multiple properties with your IRA in a year. Since most fix and flip transactions are short-term in nature (under one-year hold time), IRA owners need to be careful not to do too many flips with their IRA in one year as the IRA can be deemed to be in the business of real estate. If the IRA is deemed to be in the business of real estate, then the income the IRA makes from the flips will be subject to UBIT. If the IRA is flipping one or two properties a year you don’t need to worry about the IRA being deemed in the business of real estate. However, if the IRA is flipping more a couple properties a year you should consult you tax lawyer or CPA on the exact details of your IRAs investments.
If your IRA is subject to UBIT, then the IRA files its own separate tax return called a 990-T and the IRA pays the tax due. This return is separate from the IRA owner’s personal tax return. The 990-T is the responsibility of the IRA owner and is not something that is generally prepared by your self-directed IRA custodian. You’ll need to engage a tax lawyer, CPA, or accountant to prepare and file the 990-T. Or you can complete it on your own, but it is a very technical return and there is little guidance on how it should be prepared for an IRA.
These rules can seem a little foreign and overwhelming at first. But I like to say that learning how to self-direct your IRA is like learning a new board game. It’s not that the board game rules are complicated. Rather, it is something you need to learn first before playing and moving pieces. When we play a new board game, we first read the rule book, or we play with someone who already knows the game. So, like playing a board game, read up on the subject and consider my book, The Self-Directed IRA Handbook, or play the game with others who knows the rules (e.g., a lawyer, CPA, advisor, or other investor). After you’ve properly self-directed your IRA into real estate once, you’ll have the rules down and it’s the same game each time thereafter…at least until Congress changes the rules of the game. And if they do, I’ll update my rulebook.
An IRA must report its fair market value to the IRS annually. Fair market value is reported to the IRS by your IRA custodian via IRS Form 5498. For standard IRAs holding stocks or mutual funds, those account values are automatically determined as they simply take the stock or fund price as of the close of the market on December 31st each year. They then use these amounts to set the year-end account fair market value. For self-directed accounts, such fair market values are not readily available, and it becomes the IRA account owner’s responsibility to obtain their self-directed investment values so that their custodian can properly report the account’s fair market value. The value of an account is important for a few reasons. First, the IRS requires it to be updated annually. Second, it is used to set required minimum distributions (RMDs) for those account holders over the age of 70 ½ with Traditional IRAs. Last, the account value is used when converting an entire account, or a particular investment or portion of the account, from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
What is “Fair Market Value?”
Fair market value of an investment has been broadly defined by the Court as:
“The price at which property would change hands between a hypothetical willing buyer and a hypothetical willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell, and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” U.S. v. Cartwright, 411 US 546 (1973).
Now here’s the hard part: Even though the IRS requires IRAs to update their fair market value on an annual basis, the Government Accountability Office noted in their recent report that:
“Current IRS guidance includes NO [emphasis added] guidance or advice to custodians or IRA owners regarding how to determine the FMV [fair market value]”. United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-17-02, Retirement Security Improved Guidance Could Help Account Owners Understand the Risks of Investing in Unconventional Assets. (Dec. 2016).
The absence of guidance, however, has not relieved IRA owners or their custodians from obtaining and reporting this information. While there is no specific fair market valuation guidance for IRAs, there are commonly accepted methods of reporting value used by professionals and companies within the self-directed IRA industry. Most of these methods have been adopted from law and regulations governing employer retirement plans or estates.
Methods to be used by Asset Type
The table below outlines preferred valuation methods that are commonly used in the industry for the most common self-directed IRA assets. As you will note, when the valuation is needed for a taxable event, such as a distribution or Roth conversion, greater detail and supporting information will be required as the valuation will result in tax being due.*
Non-Taxable (Annual FMV)
Taxable (RMD, distribution or conversion)
Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) from a real estate professional is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept property tax assessor values or Zillow reports in non-taxable situations.
Real estate appraisal is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept a broker’s price opinion.
Value of a note can be reported by calculating the principal due plus any accrued and unpaid interest. This is the valuation method used for calculating the value of a note for estate tax purposes.
Same as non-taxable, principal amount due plus accrued and un-paid interest. For notes in default, a third-party opinion as to value is typically required in order for the note to be written-down below face value.
For bullion, use the spot value of the metal in question times the ounces owned. Spot value is widely reported on a daily basis on financial sites.
For acceptable coins, use market data for the coin in question via the Grey Sheets available at www.bullionvalues.com.
Same as non-taxable.
LLC, LP, or Private Company Interest
Obtain a third party-opinion of value of the LLC interest. The opinion should rely on IRS Revenue Ruling 59-60. For asset holding companies, the valuation should focus on the value of the assets. For operating companies, the valuation should focus on earnings.
Similar requirement, but the detail of the opinion should be more significant. For example, for an asset holding company where the IRA’s interest is determined by the assets of the LLC. A CMA would be acceptable for calculating that assets value in the company in an annual valuation. However, an appraisal of the real estate to calculate in that asset would be required in a taxable situation.
Since the valuation reporting policies of custodians vary, IRA owners should make sure that they understand their IRA custodian’s policies for valuations of the assets in question.
Our firm routinely assists clients with obtaining third-party opinions of value, and can assist IRA owners who need to produce a report or third party opinion as to an LLC or other investment interest held by an IRA. Call us at (888) 801-0010.
*Please note that there are clearly differences of opinions on these matters, and since there is no specific legal guidance for IRA valuations, please keep in mind that the table above is based on my own industry experience and opinions. Seek a licensed professional in all instances for your specific situation.
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:
If you are establishing an estate plan, it is likely that you will have a Revocable Living Trust (“Trust”) as the primary document that outlines who will receive your assets upon your death and what conditions, if any, will be placed on those assets. As many persons are aware, a Trust has numerous advantages over a will because upon the death of the owner(s) of the Trust, the surviving trustee of the Trust will have control and authority to distribute the estate of the deceased person without having to go to probate court. A will, by contrast, typically must receive Court approval and distribution of the assets occurs only after going through probate court and getting orders from the Court. The probate process of a will is expensive, time consuming, and is part of the public record.
When establishing a revocable trust you will be outlining your assets and who will receive those assets upon your death. You will also outline certain conditions that may be placed on your assets. For example, you may state that your children will receive an equal share of your estate upon your death and the death of your spouse but your children shall not receive a distribution if they have a drug or alcohol addiction or if they have a creditor who would cease the funds. The trust may also restrict distributions to minor children so that they don’t receive a large inheritance when they are 18.
One of the most significant decisions you will make when you establish your Trust is who will be the Trustee of your Trust upon your death. In most situations, you will be the trustee during your lifetime and if you have a spouse your spouse will be trustee if they survive you. However, you will need to select a successor Trustee of your Trust who will manage your estate following your death (and the death of your spouse, as applicable). This successor Trustee may be a family member, friend, bank or trust company, or an attorney or other professional. When determining who should be your Trustee, you should consider the following issues and factors.
What Will the Trustee Do? The Trustee will need to undertake the following tasks.
Typically will make funeral and burial arrangements along with family members (generally the Trust pays for these things).
Inform family members and heirs of the estate plans of the deceased.
Will pay off creditors and hire professional as needed to assist with the estate (accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, etc.).
Determine assets. They will need to know the assets of the deceased in order to ensure that they are distributed to the heirs/beneficiaries of the Trust.
Organize assets for distribution. This may include listing and selling real property. It will likely include coordinating the distribution of bank accounts and insurance policies. It will also include organizing and distributing personal effects (e.g. jewelry, furniture, art, personal effects). And finally, it may include the winding down, sell, or transfer of businesses.
Size of the Estate. Most Trusts will list a family member as the Trustee of the estate and for estates of a couple million dollars or less this is generally a good fit. However, for estates over $3M you may want to consider listing a professional (attorney or law firm) as the successor trustee of your estate and for estates over $10M you may want to consider listing a trust company or bank as the trustee of your estate. Large estates can overwhelm a family member who has never handled such matters before and having a professional with experience can go a long way. The Trust will need to pay for these services (generally in the tens of thousands of dollars) so it isn’t typically advisable for smaller estates unless there is no other adequate family member of friend available.
When to List Non-Family? If you have heirs/beneficiaries who are likely to disagree and cause contention, you may want to list a non-family member or a friend as the Trustee so that a third party can make decisions and so that you can avoid potential contention and litigation over your estate.
Financial Expertise of the Trustee. If you are selecting a family member, choose one who has shown good financial skills over their life. If you’re selecting a child over another, consider their financial expertise, work background, location, and family dynamics in selecting one child as Trustee over another. Also, choose someone who is well organized and who is task oriented. The Trustee will have many things to accomplish and you want someone who will take care and responsibility for these things.
Family Dynamics. All families are different and all situations are unique. As a result, you may select a brother or sister as your successor Trustee instead of choosing a child or other family member. This may be because your children are younger or because a sibling is better equipped to handle the administration of your estate.
Trustee Compensation. If you are listing a family member as Trustee, they typically will serve without compensation but will be reimbursed for any expenses they incur while serving as Trustee. You may compensate them or give them something extra from the estate for taking on the responsibility but generally family members are listed to serve without compensation.
Can an Heir/Beneficiary be a Trustee? Yes, you may have a beneficiary/heir serve as Trustee and this is very common. In fact, most persons who have adult children will list a child as the successor Trustee and this person will also typically be a beneficiary/heir. While there is some conflict of interest in this arrangement, the Trustee is bound to the terms of the Trust and can’t abuse that discretion for their own personal benefit.
Should I Appoint Co-Trustees? Some persons will consider listing co-beneficiaries as successor Trustees. Typically, this is done as a way to involve more than one family member in the distribution of the estate so that one person doesn’t feel left out. While there can be some benefits to involving another person as Trustee (e.g. sharing the workload, combining skills of persons listed) it can cause contention and confusion as to who is doing what so be specific about their authority and responsibility if you are listing multiple trustee.
Who is Most Commonly Listed as Trustee? Most persons with adult children will list one of their children as successor Trustee. Most persons with younger children will list a sibling or close friend as their successor Trustee.
Your Trustee has an important and critical task in managing your estate following your death. Choose wisely as they will need to make critical decisions that will effect your loved ones.
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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.