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GAO Report on Self-Directed IRAs Concludes IRS Lacking in Three Key Areas

image4280The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) concluded over a year of research and investigation on self-directed IRA’s and 401(k)’s with a report to Congress called Retirement Security: Improved Guidance Could Help Account Owners Understand the Risks of Investing in Unconventional Assets.

Self-directed IRA’s and 401(k)’s are accounts that may be invested into “unconventional” assets. The most common “self-directed” assets are real estate, LLC’s, start-ups, venture capital, private funds, and precious metals. The self-directed IRA industry has tripled over the past ten years and the demand and interest from retirement account holders continues to grow.

The GAO was tasked to research self-directed IRA’s by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee.

The GAO identified 27 custodians who handle self-directed IRA’s holding “unconventional” assets such as real estate, LLC’s, private company stock, and precious metals. Seventeen of these companies participated and responded to surveys and requests for information. These 17 companies reported holding 500,000 retirement accounts and $50 Billion in assets in unconventional investments.

I was interviewed by the GAO for this report and they also used my book, The Self-Directed IRA Handbook, while conducting research on the laws and taxes affecting self-directed IRA and 401(k) investors.

The GAO’s report concluded that IRS guidance is lacking in three specific areas:

  1. Prohibited Transactions: The GAO concluded that self-directed account holders who invest in unconventional assets are at greater risk of engaging in prohibited transactions and that the IRS should engage in additional outreach and education with regards to unconventional assets to ensure compliance. The prohibited transactions rules are found in IRC § 4975 and essentially restrict the account owner, and certain family members, from transacting personally with their own IRA. For example, it would be a prohibited transaction for an IRA owner to sell private stock they personally own to their own IRA. It is also a prohibited transaction to have use or benefit of your IRA’s assets. For example, if your IRA owned real estate, it would be a prohibited transaction to have personal use or occupancy of the property.
  1. UBTI (Unrelated Business Taxable Income): The GAO’s research and investigation concluded that many self-directed IRA and 401(k) investors are unaware of the unrelated business taxable income (“UBTI”) that can apply to some “unconventional” investments owned by an IRA. UBTI tax applies to IRA’s when they receive “business” income as opposed to “investment” income. IRA’s are designed to receive investment income such as rental income, interest income, dividend income, or capital gain income. However, if an IRA receives “business” income or “ordinary” income, that causes UBTI and the IRA ends up being responsible for tax on its income. In this instance, the IRA files a 990-T tax return and is responsible for tax on the income earned. Most self-directed IRA investments do not cause UBTI, but many self-directed investors unwittingly run into this tax. The GAO found in its report that there isn’t any guidance regarding UBTI in the IRS publications on IRA’s, Publications 590-A and 590-B. The GAO warned that without caution or specific guidance in these publications or through other efforts by the IRS, that self-directed account owners may unwittingly invest their account into assets that cause UBTI tax.
  1. Fair Market Valuations: The GAO’s report found that there is zero advice to custodians of IRA’s or to IRA owners regarding how to determine the fair market value (“FMV”) for unconventional assets held in a retirement account. Each year, the custodian of a self-directed IRA must report the FMV of the account to the IRS via form 5498. For publicly traded assets such as stocks or mutual funds, valuation is relatively simple as the valuations is the price of the stock or fund as of close of the market price on December 31 each year. For assets such as real estate or private company stock, such value is not as readily available and account holders and companies use varying methods for reporting FMV annually to the IRS. The GAO recommended that the IRS develop guidance or regulations on how unconventional assets should be valued and reported to the IRS. In their response to the report, the IRS stated that they will recommend that Treasury address fair market valuations in their upcoming retirement plan regulations for 2016-2017

The GAO report was an excellent analysis and summary of the common issues facing self-directed IRA and 401(k) owners investing in unconventional assets. As an attorney representing self-directed account holders for over ten years, I wholeheartedly agree with the three issues the GAO cited in their report and believe that further guidance from the IRS would increase awareness for not only account holders but also for their professional tax, legal, and financial advisers.

2016 Self-Directed IRA Tax Reporting Requirements

Self-Directed IRA investors should be aware of the following IRA tax reporting responsibilities.  Some of these items are completed by your custodian and some of them are the IRA owner’s sole responsibility. Here’s a quick summary of what should be reported to the IRS each year for your self-directed IRA.

IRA Custodian Files

Your IRA Custodian will file the following forms to the IRS annually.

IRS FORM PURPOSE WHAT DOES IT REPORT
Form 5498 Filed to the IRS by your custodian. No taxes are due or paid as a result of Form 5498.  

IRA contributions, Roth conversions, the account’s fair market value as of 12/31/16, and required minimum distributions taken.

 

Form 1099-R Filed to the IRS by your custodian to report any distributions or Roth conversions. The amounts distributed or converted are generally subject to tax and are claimed on your personal tax return. IRA distributions for the year, Roth IRA conversions, and also rollovers that are not direct IRA trustee-to-IRA trustee.


IRA Owner’s Responsibility

Depending on your self-directed IRA investments, you may be required to file the following tax return(s) with the IRS for your IRA’s investments/income.

IRS FORM DOES MY IRA NEED TO FILE THIS? DUE DATE
1065 Partnership Tax Return If your IRA is an owner in an LLC, LP, or other partnership, then the Partnership should file a 1065 Tax Return for the company to the IRS and should issue a K-1 to your IRA for its share of income or loss. Make sure the accountant preparing the company return knows to use your custodian’s tax ID for your IRA’s K-1’s and not your personal SSN (or your IRAs Tax ID if it has one for UBIT 990-T tax return purposes). If your IRA owns an LLC 100%, then it is disregarded for tax purposes (single-member LLC) and the LLC does not need to file a tax return to the IRS. March 15th, 6-month extension available
990-T IRA Tax Return (UBIT) If your IRA incurs Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), then it is required to file a tax return. The IRA files a tax return and any taxes due are paid from the IRA. Most self-directed IRAs don’t need to file a 990-T for their IRA, but you may be required to file for your IRA if your IRA obtained a non-recourse loan to buy a property (UDFI tax), or if your IRA participates in non-passive real estate investments such as: Construction, development, or on-going short-term flips. You may also have UBIT if your IRA has received income from an active trade or business such as a being a partner in an LLC that sells goods and services (C-Corp dividends exempt). Rental real estate income (no debt leverage), interest income, capital gain income, and dividend income are exempt from UBIT tax. April 15th, 3-month extension available

Most Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve answered the most frequently asked questions below as they relate to your IRA’s tax reporting responsibilities.

Q: My IRA is a member in an LLC with other investors. What should I tell the accountant preparing the tax return about reporting profit/loss for my IRA?

A: Let your accountant know that the IRA should receive the K-1 (e.g. ABC Trust Company FBO John Doe IRA) and that they should use the Tax-ID of your custodian and not your personal SSN. Contact your custodian to obtain their Tax ID. Most custodians are familiar with this process, so it should be readily available.

Q: Why do I need to provide an annual valuation to my custodian for the LLC (or other company) my IRA owns?

A: Your IRA custodian must report your IRA’s fair market value as of the end of the year (as of 12/31/16) to the IRS on Form 5498 and in order to do this they must have an accurate record of the value of your IRA’s investments. If your IRA owns an LLC, they need to know the value of that LLC. For example, let’s say you have an IRA that owns an LLC 100% and that this LLC owns a rental property and that it also has a bank account with some cash. If the value of the rental property at the end of the year was $150,000, and if the cash in the LLC bank account is $15,000, then the value of the LLC at the end of the year is $165,000.

Q: I have a property owned by my IRA and I obtained a non-recourse loan to purchase the property. Does my IRA need to file a 990-T tax return?

A: Probably. A 990-T tax return is required if your IRA has income subject to UBIT tax. There is a tax called UDFI tax (Unrelated Debt Financed Income) that is triggered when your IRA uses debt to acquire an asset. Essentially, what the IRS does in this situation is they make you apportion the percent of your investment that is the IRA’s cash (tax favorable treatment) and the portion that is debt (subject to UDFI/UBIT tax) and your IRA ends up paying taxes on the profits that are generated from the debt as this is non-retirement plan money. If you have rental income for the year, then you can use expenses to offset this income. However, if you have $1,000 or more of gross income subject to UBIT, then you should file a 990-T tax return. In addition, if you have losses for the year, you may want to file 990-T to claim those losses as they can carry-forward to be used to offset future gains (e.g. sale of the property).

Q: How do I file a 990-T tax return for my IRA?

A: This is filed by your IRA and is not part of your personal tax return. If tax is due, you will need to send the completed tax form to your IRA Custodian along with an instruction to pay the tax due and your custodian will pay the taxes owed from the IRA to the IRS. Your IRA must obtain its own Tax ID to file Form 990-T. Your IRA custodian does not file this form or report UBIT tax to the IRS for your IRA. This is the IRA owner’s responsibility. Our law firm prepares and files 990-T tax returns for our self-directed IRA and 401(k) clients. Contact us at the law firm if you need assistance.

Sadly, not many professionals are familiar with the rules and tax procedures for self-directed IRAs so it is important to seek out those attorneys, accountants, and CPAs who can help you understand your self-directed IRA tax reporting obligations. Our law firm routinely advises clients and their accountants on the rules and procedures that I have summarized in this article and we can also prepare and file your 990-T tax return.

Self Directed IRAs, Prohibited Transactions, and the IRS Statute of Limitations: Thiessen v. Commissioner

SDIRA Prohibited TransactionIn the recent case of Thiessen v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. No. 7 (2016)the Tax Court considered how long the IRS has to allege a prohibited transaction against an IRA. In general, the IRS must allege a prohibited transaction against your IRA within three years after the return is filed. IRC 6501(a). However, that time-period may be extended another three years for a total of six years pursuant to IRC 6501(e)(1) when the taxpayer fails to report an amount that is in excess of 25% of the gross income stated in the return. For prohibited transaction rule violations, a failure to report occurs when you don’t disclose the prohibited transaction to the IRS or when you fail to claim the distribution that occurs from a prohibited transaction on your personal tax return. A prohibited transaction could be disclosed to the IRS though attachments to the return or other correspondence but the Tax Court first looks to see what was reported to the IRS on the IRA owner’s personal 1040 tax return for the years in question. In other words, if you don’t volunteer clear information of a prohibited transaction to the IRS then the limitation period can be extended up to a total of six years so long as the prohibited transaction would result in an gross income in excess of 25% of the taxpayer’s personal return. Note: IRS Form 5329 is used to declare a prohibited transaction on your personal return.

There are a few very important takeaways from the Tax Court’s ruling in Thiessen and from the IRS Internal Revenue Manual on Prohibited Transactions.

STATUTE OF LIMITATION TIPS

PRACTICAL THREE YEAR PERIOD

 

According to the IRS Agent Manual, Internal Revenue Manual, 4.72.11.6, IRS agents are instructed and trained to only review for prohibited transactions within a three-year window. In order to pursue a prohibited transaction past three years, an agent must receive approval from IRS Area Counsel. So, for practical purposes, the IRS is examining prohibited transactions within a three-year window.
FAILURE TO DISCLOSE SIX YEAR PERIOD

 

As had occurred in Thiessen, if any IRA owner fails to disclose a prohibited transaction to the IRS, the IRS may pursue a prohibited transaction for up to six years. This six-year clock runs six years after you filed your return in question. So, if you filed a 2010 personal return on April 15, 2011, and if the return did not include disclosure of a prohibited transaction, the IRS could pursue a prohibited transaction up until April 15, 2017. Keep in mind, this failure to report though must be a prohibited transaction that exceeds 25% of the gross income of the taxpayer for the year in question.

A final word to note is that the IRS may pursue prohibited transactions past six years and into an indefinite time-period when the prohibited transaction was fraudulent or a willful attempt to evade tax. IRC 6501(c)(1),(2),(3). I’m not aware of cases in this situation, nevertheless, don’t expect to be in safe waters if you fraudulently entered into a prohibited transaction as the statute of limitations never runs in those situations.

2015 Tax Reporting for Your Self-Directed IRA

Self-Directed IRA investors should be aware of the following IRA tax reporting responsibilities.  Some of these items are completed by your custodian and some of them are the IRA owner’s sole responsibility. Here’s a quick summary of what should be reported to the IRS each year for your self-directed IRA.

IRA Custodian Files

Your IRA Custodian will file the following forms to the IRS annually.

IRS FORM PURPOSE WHAT DOES IT REPORT
Form 5498 Filed to the IRS by your custodian. No taxes are due or paid as a result of Form 5498.  

IRA contributions, roth conversions, the accounts fair market value as of 12/31/15, and required minimum distributions taken.

 

Form 1099-R Filed to the IRS by your custodian to report any distributions or Roth conversions. The amounts distributed or converted are generally subject to tax and are claimed on your personal tax return. IRA distributions for the year, Roth IRA conversions, and also rollovers that are not direct IRA trustee to IRA trustee.

IRA Owner Responsibility

Depending on your self-directed IRA investments, you may be required to file the following tax return(s) with the IRS for your IRA’s investments/income.

IRS FORM DOES MY IRA NEED TO FILE THIS? DUE DATE
1065 Partnership Tax Return If your IRA is an owner in an LLC, LP, or other partnership, then the Partnership should file a 1065 Tax Return for the company to the IRS and should issue a K-1 to your IRA for its share of income or loss. Make sure the accountant preparing the company return knows to use your custodian’s tax ID for your IRA’s K-1’s and not your personal SSN (or your IRAs Tax ID if it has one for UBIT 990-T tax return purposes). If your IRA owns an LLC 100%, then it is disregarded for tax purposes (single member LLC) and the LLC does not need to file a tax return to the IRS.

 

April 15th, 6 month extension available
990-T IRA Tax Return (UBIT) If your IRA incurs unrelated business income tax (UBIT), then it is required to file a tax return. The IRA files a tax return and any taxes due are paid from the IRA. Most self-directed IRAs don’t need to file a 990-T for their IRA, buy you may be required to file for your IRA if your IRA obtained a non-recourse loan to buy a property (UDFI tax), or if your IRA participates in non-passive real estate investments such as construction, development, or on-going short-term flips. You may also have UBIT if your IRA has received income from an active trade or business such as a being a partner in an LLC that sells goods and services (c-corp dividends exempt). Rental real estate income (no debt leverage), interest income, capital gain income, and dividend income are exempt from UBIT tax. April 15th, 3 month extension available

Most Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve answered the most frequently asked questions below as they relate to your IRA’s tax reporting responsibilities.

Q: My IRA is a member in an LLC with other investors. What should I tell the accountant preparing the tax return about reporting profit/loss for my IRA?

A: Let your accountant know that the IRA should receive the K-1 (e.g. ABC Trust Company FBO John Doe IRA) and that they should use the Tax-ID of your custodian and not your personal SSN. Contact your custodian to obtain their Tax ID. Most custodians are familiar with this process so it should be readily available.

Q: Why do I need to provide an annual valuation to my custodian for the LLC (or other company) my IRA owns?

A: Your IRA custodian must report your IRA’s fair market value as of the end of the year (as of 12/31/15) to the IRS on Form 5498 and in order to do this they must have an accurate record of the value of your IRA’s investments. If your IRA owns an LLC, they need to know the value of that LLC. For example, let’s say you have an IRA that owns an LLC 100% and that this LLC owns a rental property and that it also has a bank account with some cash. If the value of the rental property at the end of the year was $150,000 and if the cash in the LLC bank account is $15,000, then the value of the LLC at the end of the year is $165,000.

Q: I have a property owned by my IRA and I obtained a non-recourse loan to purchase the property. Does my IRA need to file a 990-T tax return?

A: Probably. A 990-T tax return is required if your IRA has income subject to UBIT tax. There is a tax called UDFI tax (unrelated debt financed income) that is triggered when your IRA uses debt to acquire an asset. Essentially, what the IRS does in this situation is they make you apportion the percent of your investment that is the IRAs cash (tax favorable treatment) and the portion that is debt (subject to UDFI/UBIT tax) and your IRA ends up paying taxes on the profits that are generated from the debt as this is non-retirement plan money. If you have rental income for the year, then you can use expenses to offset this income. However, if you have $1,000 or more of gross income subject to UBIT then you should file a 990-T tax return. In addition, if you have losses for the year you may want to file 990-T to claim those losses as they can carry-forward to be used to offset future gains (e.g. sale of the property).

Q: How do I file a 990-T tax return for my IRA?

A: This is filed by your IRA and is not part of your personal tax return. If tax is due, you will need to send the completed tax form to your IRA custodian along with an instruction to pay the tax due and your custodian will pay the taxes owed from the IRA to the IRS. Your IRA must obtain its own Tax ID to file Form 990-T. Your IRA custodian does not file this form or report UBIT tax to the IRS for your IRA. This is the IRA owner’s responsibility. Our law firm prepares and files 990-T tax returns for our self-directed IRA and 401(k) clients. Contact us at the law firm if you need assistance.

Sadly, not many professionals are familiar with the rules and tax procedures for self-directed IRAs so it is important to seek out those attorneys, accountants, and CPAs who can help you understand your self-directed IRA tax reporting obligations. Our law firm routinely advises clients and their accountants on the rules and procedures that I have summarized in this article and we can also prepare and file your 990-T tax return.

Correcting Your IRA’s RMD Failures and Avoiding the Penalty

If you failed to take required minimum distributions (RMD’s) from your IRA, then you are subject to a 50% penalty. The penalty is 50% on the amount you should have distributed from your IRA to yourself. It’s a steep penalty for simply failing to pay yourself from your own IRA and it’s something every IRA owner with RMD needs to understand. For my prior article explaining RMD rules for IRAs, please click here.

Waiver of 50% Penalty Tax

If you’ve failed to take RMD for your IRA, you have a chance at obtaining a waiver from the penalty but you must admit the mistake to the IRS by filing IRS form 5329. In the instructions to form 5329, the IRS outlines the waiver process to avoid the 50% penalty tax.

What You Need to Do

  1. Complete Section IX of Form 5329. You need to specify what you should have taken as RMD  and then you calculate the penalty tax due. You then write the letters “RC”next to the amount you want waived on line 52.
  2. Statement of Explanation. Attach a Statement of Explanation outlining two items.
    1. First, explain what was the “reasonable error” that caused a failure to take RMD. The IRS does not provide a definition or acceptable examples of “reasonable error”. See IRC 4974(d)(1). From my own experience and from examples I’ve heard from colleagues, the IRS does recognize reasonable errors and oversights in most situations where there is reason for the error. This would include situations such mental health, to turning 70 ½ and being new to RMD, to relying on bad advice from an advisor, custodian or accountant, to holding an ill-liquid asset for sale in a self directed IRA.
    2. Second, explain the reasonable steps taken to correct the error. Ideally, by the time you’re filing the exemption request you would’ve already contacted your IRA custodian and would’ve taken the late RMD so that by the time you submit the RMD penalty tax waiver, you would be caught up and would have already remedied the error.  This makes for an easy and clean explanation of what steps you’re going to take as your explanation will be that you already corrected the RMD failure once you realized the error.

Keep in mind that RMD failures won’t go away as your IRA custodian will be updating your account each year with the IRS. Eventually, you’ll start getting collection letters from the IRS requesting the penalty tax. Consequently, IRA owners are well advised to correct the RMD failure and request the wavier as soon as they become aware of the error or oversight.