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:
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.
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.
DOES MY IRA NEED TO FILE THIS?
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.
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.
In a recent U.S. Tax Court case, the Court ruled against an IRA owner and deemed his IRA distributed and taxable as the IRA owner failed to properly execute his intended self-directed IRA real estate investment. Dabney v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2014-108.
The IRA owner had an IRA at Charles Schwab and intended to use the IRA to acquire real estate in Brian Head, UT. Upon conducting research Mr. Dabney learned that an IRA could own real estate. However, instead of rolling or transferring his IRA funds to a self directed IRA custodian who would allow his IRA to own real estate, Mr. Dabney took a distribution of the IRA and directed Schwab to wire the funds to closing for the purchase of the property. Additionally, he instructed title and eventually received a deed in the name of his Schwab IRA.
The problem was that rather than invest his IRA into real estate he instead distributed his IRA and use the distributed fund to buy real estate outside of his IRA. Charles Schwab issued Mr. Dabney a 1099-R for that distribution and Mr. Dabney contested the 1099-R and the taxes owed as a result arguing that the funds were used to buy a property owned by his Schwab IRA. Mr. Dabney argued that Charles Schwab made a mistake. However, the Court ruled against him because his funds were distributed out of his Charles Schwab IRA and because his IRA funds and the real estate were not held by a self-directed IRA custodian that allowed for IRAs to own real estate. The Court stated that an IRA can certainly hold real estate but that Charles Schwab’s policies did not allow for Mr. Dabney’s IRA to own real estate and since his custodian would not hold the real estate as an asset of his IRA that it was deemed distributed.
The lesson to be learned from the Dabney case is that in order to properly execute a self-directed IRA investment into an asset such as real estate, the IRA owner needs to roll over or transfer their IRA funds first to a self-directed IRA custodian who allows the IRA to own real estate and then that self-directed IRA will actually take title and ownership to the IRA asset directly. While these rules seem simple, I’d estimate that I speak to at least one or two IRA owners a year who took a distribution from an IRA and used those funds to buy real estate (or some other alternative asset) thinking that the real estate would still be owned by their IRA and that the funds would not be distributed and subject to tax. The confusion usually arises with the non-self directed custodian who misunderstands what the the account owner is trying to do (invest the IRA, not distribute it). Keep in mind, that in order to own real estate with a self-directed IRA, you must have a self-directed IRA custodian.
Can my IRA own substantially all of the ownership of an LLC? Can my IRA/LLC pay a salary to me for serving as the manager of the IRA/LLC? Last week the U.S. Tax Court issued an opinion in the case of Ellis v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-245 and answered both of these questions.
In Ellis, the Tax Court resolved two questions posed by the IRS. First, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when his IRA acquired 98% of the membership interest in CST, LLC? And second, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when CST, LLC (owned 98% by his IRA) paid him compensation for serving as the manager?
Analyzing Ellis v. Commissioner
As to the first question, the Tax Court held that Mr. Ellis’ IRA did NOT engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquired 98% of the ownership of a newly established LLC. The other 2% was owned by an un-related person who was not part of the case and whose ownership did not have an impact on the decision. The IRS contended that a prohibited transaction occurred when the IRA bought ownership of CST, LLC. The Court disagreed, however, and held that the IRA’s purchase of the initial membership interest of the LLC was NOT a prohibited transaction. The Court stated that the IRA’s purchase of membership interest in a new LLC is analogous to prior holdings of the Court whereby the Court held that an IRA does not engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquires the initial shares of a new corporation. Similarly, the court held that a new LLC is not a disqualified person to an IRA under the prohibited transaction rules and as a result an IRA may invest and own the ownership of the LLC. IRC § 4975(e)(2)(G), Swanson V. Commissioner, 106 T.C. 76, 88 (1996). Consequently, the Court’s ruling means that it is NOT a prohibited transaction for an IRA to acquire substantially all or all of the ownership of a new LLC.
As to the second question, the Tax Court held that it was a prohibited transaction for the LLC owned substantially by Mr. Ellis’ IRA to pay compensation to Mr. Ellis personally. The court reasoned that, “In causing CST [the IRA/LLC] to pay him [IRA owner] compensation, Mr. Ellis engaged in the transfer of plan income or assets for his own benefit in violation of section 4975 (c)(1)(d).” This type of prohibited transaction is often times referred to as a self dealing prohibited transaction and occurs when the IRA owner personally benefits from his IRA’s investments. The Court looked to the operating agreement of the LLC which authorized payment to Mr. Ellis for serving as the general manager and also the actual records of the LLC which showed the payments to Mr. Ellis. When using an IRA/LLC, one of the many important clauses in the operating agreement is one which restricts compensation to the IRA owner or any other disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner’s spouse or kids). Also, the actual payment and transaction records of the IRA/LLC will be analyzed so it is important that both the LLC documents and the actual payment records do not allow for or result in payment from the IRA/LLC to disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner).
It is also important to note that the Tax Court rejected Mr. Ellis’ argument that the payments were exempt from the prohibited transaction rules under section 4975 (d)(10). Section (d)(10) provides an exemption to the prohibited transaction rules for payments from an IRA to a disqualified person [e.g. IRA owner] for services rendered to manage the IRA. The Tax Court rejected this argument stating that the payments from the IRA/LLC were not for management of the IRA but for management of the IRA/LLC and its business activities. In this case, the IRA owner was actively involved as the general manager of the IRA/LLC which LLC bought and sold cars. As a result, the Court held that the payments were not exempt and constituted a prohibited transaction.
I was happy to read this case and find the Court’s conclusions because it matches the same opinion and advice we have been giving clients regarding IRA/LLCs for nearly ten years: that a newly established LLC owned by an IRA does not constitute a prohibited transaction but the IRA/LLC cannot pay the IRA owner (or any other disqualified person) compensation for managing the IRA/LLC.
Real estate may be owned in your personal name, in a business name, or in a trust. You may have heard of revocable living trusts, corporations, LLCs, series LLCs, or limited partnerships. Here’s a quick guide to where you should own different types of properties.
1. Personal Residence
Your home should be owned in your revocable living trust. A living trust is an excellent choice to own your personal residence as the property can pass under the terms of your trust upon your death and your heirs won’t need to go to probate court to transfer ownership. If your residence is owned in your personal name it can only pass to your children/heirs after you’ve gone to probate court which requires far more legal fees and time than setting up a trust now. For homes with significant equity you may want to consider a domestic asset protection trust which can protect the equity in the home from personal creditors.
2. Rental Property
Your rental property should be owned in an LLC. Rental properties generate income and wealth but they can also create liabilities. If a rental property is owned in your personal name everything that happens on the home creates personal liability to you and a plaintiff can go after all of your personal assets, income, and wages. On the other hand, if a rental property is owned in an LLC the plaintiff will be required to sue the LLC and can’t go after the LLC owner personally. In certain states where you have lots of properties you may want to consider a series LLC which provides liability protection in the LLC between multiple properties such that if something happens to one property in the series LLC it doesn’t effect the other properties in the series LLC. An LLC owned by one person or a married couple isn’t too difficult to manage and generally doesn’t require a separate LLC tax return. Instead, you report the property and its profit/loss on your personal return in the same way you ‘d report the profit/loss if you owned it in your personal name. In most instances, limited partnerships should not be used to hold rental properties as your tax losses and write offs are restricted when you own them in a limited partnerships.
3. Land or Second Home
Your land or second home should be owned in your revocable living trust. Again, this helps keep your assets coordinated with your estate plans and outside of probate court. For land or second homes with significant equity you may want to consider a limited partnership or domestic asset protection trust which can protect the property from the owner’s personal liabilities. Generally, an LLC is not used unless the property itself creates liability. For example, if you rent your second home or cabin you may want an LLC for liability protection but most second homes or parcels of land do not create liability and therefore do not need an LLC.
4. Where Should Properties Never Be Held
Except for short short term real estate holds (under one year) properties should not be owned in a s-corporation and should never be held in a c-corporation. Additionally, we rarely recommend clients use land trusts to own property for asset protection purposes as land trusts provide little actual asset protection beyond making the owner of the property difficult to determine at the county records.
There are lots of options and many nuances to how you should own your real estate. For a more detailed and specific analysis for your properties please contact the law firm for an estate and asset protection plan that fits your needs. We can also assist with deed transfers to get your properties into the right place.
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Tom W. Anderson
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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.