Top Ten Frequently Asked Self-Directed IRA Questions (and Answers)

Attendees listening to attorney Mat Sorensen at the Self-Directed IRA Summit 2017 with the text "Top Ten Frequently Asked Self-Directed IRA Questions and Answers"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:

SituationTransfer/Rollover 
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:

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.

For a more detailed outline on UDFI, please refer to my free one-hour webinar.

 

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:

 

 

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. Check out my blog article and video outlining the differences between self-directed IRAs and solo 401(k)s.

UBIT Tax and Self-Directed IRAs: Three Key Tips Every Investor Should Know

Photo of two people at a desk using their mobile and tablet devices with the text "UBIT Tax and Self-Directed IRAs: Three Key Tips Every Investor Should Know."Unrelated Business Income Tax (“UBIT”) is often misunderstood by self-directed IRA investors and their professional advisors. In essence, UBIT is a tax that is due to an IRA when it receives “business income” as opposed to “investment income”. When we think of IRAs and retirement accounts, we think of them as receiving income without having to pay tax when the income is made. For example, when your IRA sells stock for a profit and that profit goes back to your IRA you don’t pay any tax on the gain. Similarly, when you sell real estate owned by your IRA for a profit and that profit goes back to your IRA, you don’t pay any tax on the gain. The reason for this is because the gain from the sale of an investment asset is deemed investment income and as a result it is exempt for UBIT tax.

Tip 1: “When Does UBIT Apply?”

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 that is exempt from UBIT includes the following.

Investment Income Exempt from UBIT:

  • Real Estate Rental Income, IRC 512(b)(3) – The rent of real estate is investment income and is exempt from UBIT
  • Interest Income, IRC 512(b)(1) – Interest and points made from the lending of money 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.

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 that that 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.

The second problematic area is when IRAs engage in real estate investment that do not result in investment income. For example, real estate development or a number of significant short-term real estate flips by an IRA will cause the assets of the IRA to be considered as inventory as opposed to investment assets and this will cause UBIT tax to the IRA.

Tip 2: UBIT Applies When You Have Debt Leveraging an IRA Investment

UBIT also applies to an IRA when it leverages its purchasing power with debt. 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, lets say an IRA buys a rental property for $100,000 and that $40,000 came from the IRA and $60,000 came form 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, that is not retirement plan money, the IRS requires tax to be paid on 60% of the income. So, if there is $10K of rental income on the property then $6K would be UDFI and would be subject to UBIT taxes.

For a more detailed outline on UDFI, please refer to my free one-hour webinar here.

Tip 3: UBIT Tax is Reported and Paid by the IRA via a Form 990-T Tax Return

Unrelated business income tax (UBIT) for an IRA is reported and paid via IRS Form 990-T. IRS Form 990-T is due for IRAs on April 15th of each year. IRA owner’s can file and obtain an automatic 3-month extension with the IRS by filing an extension request before the regular deadline.

If UBIT Tax is due, it is paid from the IRA and the IRA owner would send the prepared Form 990-T to their IRA custodian for their signature and for direction of payment to the IRS for any tax due as part of the 990-T Return.

For a more detailed outline of UBIT, please refer to Chapter 15 of The Self Directed IRA Handbook.

Court Rules in Favor of Self-Directed IRA Real Estate Investor in Prohibited Transaction Case

Photo of a gavel in front of empty seats in a courtroom with the text "Court Rules in Favor of Self-Directed IRA Real Estate Investor in Prohibited Transaction Case."A recent Bankruptcy Court decision dealt with prohibited transaction claims against a self directed IRA owner who was using their IRA to flip real estate for profit. The claims were brought by a bankruptcy trustee who argued that the protected IRA was no longer an IRA because it engaged in a number of prohibited transactions. If the trustee is successful in disqualifying the retirement account because of a prohibited transaction, then the funds and assets held in such retirement account are no longer protected from creditors and may be used to pay debtors involved in the bankruptcy. While most prohibited transaction cases arise in Tax Court, I’m seeing more cases on prohibited transactions in Bankruptcy Court as trustees are becoming more aggressive and as self directed IRAs are becoming more popular.

The case in question is known as In re Cherwenka, Case 13-57592-MGD (Bankr. N. D. GA 2014). The case included two important prohibited transaction analysis that are helpful to IRA owners.

Court Rules No Prohibited Transaction When Managing IRA Investment Properties Without Compensation

The first significant ruling from the Court was that there was no prohibited transaction when the IRA owner completed the following tasks related to the IRA owned property.

  • Research and identified properties to buy
  • Appointed and approved work on the properties
  • Oversaw payments on the property for work from the self-directed IRA.

The Court reasoned that these actions do no constitute a “transaction” as defined in IRC § 4975 and as a result they cannot constitute a prohibited transaction. The Court further stated that, “…self-directed IRAs as qualified IRAs, necessarily implies that a disqualified person (the owner as fiduciary) will make investment decisions regarding the plan. The Court distinguished this case from In re Williams, 2011 WL 10653865 (Bankr E.D. Cal 2011) a similar case in which the self-directed IRA owner was managing properties owned by the IRA because in Williams the IRA was paying the self-directed IRA owner for the services. The court stated that it was the payment from the IRA to the IRA owner in Williams that caused the prohibited transaction and not the mere provision of managing the IRAs investment owned by the IRA.

Court Ruled That No Prohibited Transaction Occurred When IRA and Owner Invested Into Property Together

The second significant ruling from the Court was that there was no prohibited transaction when the IRA owner and the IRA co-invested into a property together. The property in question was owned 45% by the IRA and 55% by the IRA owner. The Court rejected the bankruptcy Trustee’s argument that such co-investment purchase resulted in a prohibited transaction and stated that the interests appeared to have been treated distinctly and that the HUD documents from the sale of the property show that the IRA and the IRA owner’s proceeds from the sale were treated separately and that they were apportioned properly. As a result, the Court concluded that no prohibited transaction occurred since there was no evidence of un-fair benefit between the IRA owner and his IRA. In its reasoning, the Court referenced DOL Opinion 2000-10A which addressed an IRA and the IRA owner co-investing into a partnership. In the Opinion the DOL states that, “a violation of section 4975 (c)(1)(D) or (E) will not occur merely because the fiduciary [IRA owner] drives some incidental benefit from the transaction involving IRA assets.” The Court referenced this opinion and stated that unless there is evidence of some un-fair benefit that no prohibited transaction occurred merely because of co-investment into the same property.

There are two key take-away’s for self-directed IRA investors from this case.

First, never take compensation or payment from the IRA for services rendered. It is clear that the Courts will find a prohibited transaction if you do and that you will no longer have an IRA.

Second, if you are buying property or others assets (e.g. LLC interests) between your IRA and yourself personally (or another disqualified person) those interests must be carefully calculated and treated such that there is no benefit going unfairly between the IRA and the disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner). In sum, get advice and plan carefully as there are many land-mines you could encounter when investing IRA funds with your own personal funds. Bottom line, it can be done but it can easily be done incorrectly.