There has been a significant increase in the amount of marketing directed towards IRA owners for non-publicly traded investments. Many of these investment sponsors and promoters are using marketing slogans like “IRS Approved” or “IRA Approved”. Don’t be fooled though, as the IRS does not review or approve investments, nor do they comment or issue statements on investments in an IRA. In fact, the IRS recently revised and updated IRS Publication 3125 titled, “The IRS Does Not Approve IRA Investments,” in an effort to inform IRA investors.
IRAs Can Invest into Non-Publicly Traded Investments (Real Estate, LLCs and Precious Metals)
Yes, it’s true that a self-directed IRA can invest into real estate, LLCs, LPs, private stock, venture or hedge funds, start-ups and qualifying precious metals, among other things. However, just because you can invest in all of these assets doesn’t mean that you should. Make sure you’re investing your IRA into assets you are familiar with, and with persons and companies with whom you have thoroughly vetted. Non-publicly traded investments can be easier to understand and vet than a mutual fund prospectus, but you need to be careful when investing your funds with another person or when buying investments from third-parties who regularly sell to IRA owners using comforting, yet totally false, representations like “IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved.”
“IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved” Representations are False
In Publication 3125, “The IRS Does Not Approve IRA Investments,” the IRS provided some guidelines for IRA owners to evaluate and protect their account from “IRA Approved Schemes.”
- Avoid any investment touted as “IRA Approved” or otherwise endorsed by the IRS.
- Don’t buy an investment on the basis of a television “infomercial” or radio advertisement.
- Beware of promises or no-risk, sky-high returns on exotic investments from your retirement account.
- Never transfer or rollover your IRA or other retirement funds directly to an investment promoter.
- Proceed with caution when you are encouraged to invest in a “general partnership” or “limited liability company”.
- Don’t be swayed by the fact that a bank or trust department is serving as an IRA custodian.
- Always check out an investment and promoter before you turn over your money.
- Educate yourself about IRAs and retirement planning.
- Exercise extra caution during tax season when it comes to making IRA investments.
As a self-directed IRA investor, you are solely responsible for investment decisions, and as a result you must make certain that you understand the investments you are selecting and the associated risks. Beware of slogans and terms like “IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved,” as such slogans are just false. In addition to the consideration from the IRS above, I’ve previously written my own “Self Directed IRA Investment Due Diligence Top Ten List” which includes additional tips and questions to ask when investing your hard-earned retirement plan dollars with others.
Take the IRS guidelines and my Top Ten List into consideration when investing your IRA, but in the end, don’t be scared about investing into non-publicly traded investments. Rather, keep the risk and opportunities in perspective, and realize that you may need to get out of your comfort zone by asking pointed questions, demanding additional documentation, or simply saying “no.” Remember: You are the best person to protect your retirement.
Do you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.
Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.
10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses
Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.
1. Who can the IRA money be used for?
Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.
2. What schools qualify?
Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.
3. What expenses qualify?
There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.
4. How much is exempt?
The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.
Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.
Her expenses for the year are as follows:
- Tuition: $22,000
- Room and Board: $13,000
- Books: $1,000
- Supplies: $500
- Equipment: $500
- Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000
Jane received the following aid:
- Federal Grant: $2,400
- Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
- Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
- Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
- Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600
You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.
For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.
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:
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.
Solo 401(k)s have become a popular retirement plan option for self-employed persons. Unfortunately, many of the plans are not properly maintained and are at the risk of significant penalty and/or plan termination. If you have a Solo 401(k), you need to ensure that the 401(k) is being properly maintained. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure your plan is on track.
- Is the Plan Up-to-Date? The IRS requires all 401(k) plans, including solo 401(k)s, to be amended at least once every 6 years. If you’ve had your plan over 6 years and you’ve never restated the plan or adopted amendments, it is not compliant and upon audit you will be subject to fines and possible plan termination (IRS Rev Proc 2016-17). If your plan is out of date, your best option is to restate your plan to make sure it is compliant with current law. On average, most plan documents we see update every 2-3 years as the laws effecting the plan documents change.
- Are You Properly Tracking Your Plan Funds? Your solo 401(k) plan funds need to be properly tracked and they must identify the different sources for each participant. For example, if two spouses are contributing Roth 401(k) employee contributions and the company is matching traditional 401(k) dollars, then you need to be tracking these four different sources of funds, and you must have a written accounting record documenting these different fund types.
- Plan Funds Must Be Separated by Source and Participant. You must maintain separate bank accounts for the different participants’ funds (e.g. spouses or partners in a solo K), and you must also separate traditional funds from Roth funds. In addition, you must properly track and document investments from these different fund sources so that returns to the solo 401(k) are properly credited to the proper investing account.
- Does Your Solo 401(k) Need to File a Form 5500? There are two primary situations where you may be required to file a Form 5500 for your solo 401(k). First, if your solo 401(k) has more than $250,000 in assets. And second, if the solo 401(k) plan is terminated (regardless of total asset amount). If either of these instances occur, then the solo 401(k) must file a Form 5500 to the IRS annually. Form 5500 is due by July 31 of each year for the prior year’s plan activity. Solo 401(k)s can file what is known as a 5500-EZ. The 5500-EZ is a shortened version of the standard Form 5500. Unfortunately, the Form 5500-EZ cannot be filed electronically and must be filed by mail. Solo 401(k) owners have the option of filing a Form 5500-SF on-line through the DOL. The on-line filing is a preferred method as it can immediately be filed and tracked by the plan owner. In fact, if you qualify to file a 5500-EZ, the IRS/DOL allow you file the Form 5500-SF on-line but you can skip certain questions so that you only end up answering what is on the shorter Form 5500-EZ.
- Are You Properly Reporting Contributions and Rollovers? If you’ve rolled over funds from an IRA or other 401(k) to your solo 401(k), you should’ve indicated that the rollover or transfer was to another retirement account. So long as you did this, the company rolling over the funds will issue a 1099-R to you, but will include a code on the 1099-R (code G in box 7) indicating that the funds were transferred to another retirement account, and that the amount on the 1099-R is not subject to tax. If you’re making new contributions to the solo 401(k), those contributions should be properly tracked on your personal and business tax returns. If you are an s-corp, your employee contributions should show up on your W-2, and your employer contributions will show up on line 17 of your 1120S s-corp tax return. If you are a sole prop, your contributions will typically show up on your personal 1040 on line 28.
Make sure you are complying with these rules on an annual basis. If your solo 401(k) retirement plan is out of compliance, get with your attorney or CPA immediately to make sure it is up-to-date. Failure to properly file Form 5500 runs at a rate of $25 a day up to a maximum penalty of $15,000 per return not properly filed. You don’t want to get stung by that penalty for failing to file a relatively simple form. The good news is there are correction programs offered for some plan failures, but don’t get sloppy, or you’ll run the risk losing your hard-earned retirement dollars.
You have until April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 IRA contributions for Roth and Traditional IRAs. If you’re self-employed and are using a SEP, your deadline is determined by your company’s tax filing deadline (e.g. s-corp, partnership, or sole prop). So, if you were an s-corp or partnership in 2016, then your filing deadline was March 15th, 2017. II you are a sole prop, then the deadline is April 18th, 2017. If you extended your company return, that extension will also apply to your SEP IRA contributions. The table below breaks down the deadlines and extension options for Traditional, Roth and SEP IRAs.
|Type of IRA
||April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 219(f)(3); You can file your return claiming a contribution before the contribution is actually made. Rev. Rul. 84-18.
||Roth, Not Deductible
||April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 408A(c)(7).
||N/A: Employee contributions cannot be made to a SEP IRA plan.
|Employer Contribution, Deductible
||March 15/April 15th: Due Date for Company Tax Return Filing (including extensions). IRC § 404(h)(1)(B).
As outlined above, you have until the 2016 individual tax return deadline of April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions. The deadline for Traditional and Roth IRAs, however, does not include extensions. So, even if you extend your 2016 tax return, your 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions are still due on April 18th, 2017.
SEP IRA contribution deadlines are based on the company tax return deadline, which could be March 15th if the company is taxed as a corporation (“c” or “s”) or partnership, and April 15th if it is a sole proprietorship. Keep in mind that this deadline includes extensions, so if you extend your company tax return filing, you will extend the time period to make 2016 SEP IRA contributions.