The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued their most recent report on self-directed IRAs and concluded that the IRS and DOL should do more to collaborate on prohibited transactions in IRAs. The report and the GAO’s work was an excellent analysis of some of the issues facing IRA owners.
There were two significant sections in the report for Self-Directed IRA accounts: Prohibited transaction exemption applications and IRAs with large balances likely being self-directed.
Prohibited Transaction Exemption Applications
An IRA owner may request an exemption for a prohibited transaction by making a formal written request to the DOL. While the IRS enforces the prohibited transaction rules, the DOL has interpretative authority and is the agency who can grant exemptions. An exemption must be obtained in advance of the transaction and takes on average one year to obtain.
A common prohibited transaction exemption request is one where the IRA owner owns real estate in an IRA which they would like to use personally. While the property could be distributed as an in-kind distribution there are tax consequences to such distribution. The DOL has granted this exemption request for IRA owners in the past and generally requires an appraisal to set the value and a broker/agent to effectuate the transaction.
The prohibited transaction exemption process is rarely utilized by IRA owners. The GAO noted that in the past 11 years only 48 prohibited transaction exemptions where granted for IRAs.
The biggest deterrent from my experience with clients is that it takes 6 months to 1 year to get approved and about $5,000 in legal fees to make the application and handle it to decision. Usually such long timelines are not something IRA owners are willing to wait on as circumstances change from one year to the next. The DOL does have some expedited prohibited transaction exemption procedures, known as EXPRO, that can be used when an account owner is seeking to rely on an exemption that has already been granted by the DOL to someone in a similar situation. Use of such procedures with IRA owners, which is already allowed but not readily known, could provide a better outcome as EXPRO applications are granted more quickly.
The GAO recommended that the IRS and DOL collaborate on prohibited transaction exemptions to better regulate and understand IRAs.
IRAs With Large Balances Likely Self-Directed
In their report, the GAO also noted some of their prior work on self-directed IRAs and stated the following:
“…IRA owners who have accumulated unusually large IRA balances likely have invested in unconventional assets like non-publicly traded shares of stock and partnership interests.”
While this is no news to self-directed IRA owners, it should be something of interest to policy makers and financial advisers who may view self-directed accounts with skepticism. If self-directed accounts have proven to get unusually high balances, wouldn’t we want more people to use them to do the same thing and to secure their retirement. The concept of self-directed IRAs is simple: Give more freedom and control, and let people invest in what they know. Let account owners decide and obtain the benefits (or burden) of their decisions with their money. Sure, there are risks but the best person to take risks is the person whose actual hard-earned money is on the line.
Many self-directed IRA investors use an IRA/LLC (aka “checkbook-controlled IRA”) to hold their self-directed IRA investments. For an overview, see my video here. When using the IRA/LLC structure, the name of the LLC is on title to the assets, and the LLC’s bank account receives the income. As a result of this structure, the self-directed IRA owner may be asked by a title company, property management company, or other third-party to complete an IRS Form W-9 form for the IRA/LLC. Form W-9 is the document these parties request in order to issue 1099’s for rental income or for sale proceeds for real estate, stock, or other assets sold by the LLC. Form W-9 can be tricky and needs to be handled differently when you have a single-member IRA/LLC (i.e. when the IRA owns the LLC 100%) than when the LLC has two or more owners (aka “partnership”). It is important that the W-9 is completed properly so that the IRS does not confuse whether the LLC is owned by the IRA or by the IRA owner personally.
The W-9 can be tricky to complete in the single-member IRA/LLC situation. Many IRA owners will include the LLC EIN in Part I of the form or will provide the owner’s SSN. Both of those answers are incorrect. I have provided a sample W-9 form for “ABC Investments, LLC” below:
Let’s go through each line to explain the responses. I’ll start on line 1.
- Name: In the instance of a single-member IRA/LLC, the IRS considers the LLC to be disregarded, which means that the LLC is not a separate taxable entity and instead the tax reporting goes directly to the owner. In this instance, the owner of the LLC is the IRA. Consequently, the name on line 1 should be the name of your IRA. If you have a self-directed IRA with our company, that name would be something like, “Directed Trust Company FBO John Doe IRA.”
- Business Name: Line 2 is where you will list the name of the LLC. So, for example, if your IRA/LLC is called “ABC Investments, LLC,” then you would provide that name on line 2.
- Tax Classification Box: This is the section that causes confusion and often results in incorrect selections. In this section you would check the first box, “Individual/sole proprietor, single-member LLC.” When the IRA owns the LLC 100%, the LLC is considered a single-member LLC.
- Exemptions: IRA/LLCs and IRAs are an exempt payee, and as a result, you should include Code 1 on the first blank space on line 4. See line 4 instruction on Code 1 for more details.
- Address: On line 5 and 6 you will include the mailing address for the LLC. Do not include your IRA custodian’s address as any 1099s for the IRA will be sent to the IRA custodian’s address. While most 1099s and tax reporting forms generated from a W-9 do not result in a reporting or tax obligation for the IRA, it is best that the IRA owner, who is responsible for the account and decisions, receive the 1099s at their address.
- Address (Cont’d): See line 5 response information above.
- List Account Number (Optional): You may include the IRA account number with your IRA custodian on line 7, but this is optional and is not required. If you have multiple IRAs with the same custodian, it would be helpful to also provide your account number for the specific accounts involved. Otherwise, if needed, the IRA is identifiable by the name line 1.
The next section is called Part I, and is the section where a social security number or employer identification number is used. This section is often completed incorrectly. The correct response is the EIN of party on Line 1. In this instance, Line 1 is the IRA. Most IRAs should not have their own EIN, and you should not obtain an EIN for the purpose of a W-9. You may have an EIN for your IRA because you have Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) for your IRA (which is less common). However, most self-directed IRA custodians do not have an EIN for their IRA. Instead, what you should use is the reporting EIN of your IRA custodian. All IRA custodians have an EIN that is used for their customer accounts, and this EIN can be obtained by contacting your IRA custodian.
Most IRA/LLC owners have an EIN for their LLC and some will use that EIN in Part I. While that is the correct response in the multi-member IRA/LLC (“partnership”) context, it is not the correct response for the single member IRA/LLC. Another incorrect response on Part I is to use the social security number of the IRA owner. This is also incorrect as you do not personally own the LLC. An incorrect response on Part I doesn’t cause a prohibited transaction or disqualify the IRA, but it could create tax reporting confusions with the IRS.
Finally, the manager of the LLC would sign on Part II.
If your IRA/LLC has more than one owner, it is considered a multi-member IRA/LLC. Most multi-member IRA/LLCs are taxed as partnerships and as a result, the W-9 for a multi-member IRA/LLC is different from the single-member IRA/LLC.
The multi-member IRA/LLC is far more straightforward. I have provided a sample W-9 below. The important items for the W-9 in this instance are as follows:
- Line 1 is the name of the LLC: In a multi-member IRA/LLC, the entity files a tax return and is recognized at the LLC level by the IRS.
- Line 2 is blank as line 1 is the LLC name and they are the same.
- Check the box limited liability company and then indicate letter “P” for partnership.
- Skip the exemption code since the LLC itself has its own tax status (partnership usually). Even though it may be owned by IRAs the exemption doesn’t apply at the LLC level.
- Include the LLC mailing address.
- Continued mailing address.
- There is no need to list the account numbers of the IRAs here as the taxable entity itself is the LLC – not the IRAs – and there isn’t an account number for the LLC.
The LLC’s EIN should be used and provided in the box for employer identification number. Since a multi-member LLC is taxable itself as an entity (partnership return), it provides its own EIN for reporting uses on the W-9. The IRA custodian’s EIN is not used in this instance.
Every Roth IRA account owner knows that the main benefit of the Roth IRA is that there are no taxes due on withdrawals taken after the account owner is 59 ½. However, what taxes or penalties apply to distributions taken before the Roth IRA owner reaches 59 ½?
Roth IRA distributions before age 59 ½ are broken into two categories, contributions and earnings.
Contributions Can Be Withdrawn Before 59 ½ Without Tax or Penalty
The first first category is Roth IRA contributions. This category is distinct because these amounts have been subject to tax before the funds were included in the Roth IRA. The amounts withdrawn from a Roth IRA that do not exceed the amounts of Roth IRA contributions are not subject to taxes or penalties upon early distribution from the Roth IRA. However, any amounts distributed in excess of the Roth IRA contributions, which would typically be the investment returns, are subject to taxes and the early withdrawal penalty of 10%.
This is an excellent perk as it allows Roth IRA owners to take money back that they contributed to the Roth IRA without worrying about penalties or taxes.
Earnings Are Subject to Tax the 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty
Amounts withdrawn before 59 ½ that comprise the Roth IRA’s earnings are subject to tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty. IRC § 408A(d)(2)(A) & Treasury Reg. §1.408A-6, Q&A-1(b). “Earnings” is the amount over the sums you have contributed to the Roth IRA, and is essentially your investment returns and gains.
Since there are taxes AND penalties on the earnings, you should only take distributions when absolutely necessary.
Example of Roth IRA Distribution Before 59 ½
For example, let’s say a Roth IRA owner is 45 and has a Roth IRA with $65,000. This balance consists of $35,000 in Roth IRA contributions and $30,000 in earnings or investment returns. If the Roth IRA owner took a distribution of the entire account then $35,000 would NOT be subject to early withdrawal penalties as this amount comprised Roth IRA contributions where taxes have been paid already. However, the remaining $30,000 distributed represents investment returns/gains made in the Roth IRA and would be subject to early withdrawal penalties of 10% and must be also be included in the taxable income of the Roth IRA owner. As a result, Roth IRA owners under age 59 ½ should avoid distributions of their Roth IRA in excess of their contributions.
An IRA must report its fair market value to the IRS annually. Fair market value is reported to the IRS by your IRA custodian via IRS Form 5498. For standard IRAs holding stocks or mutual funds, those account values are automatically determined as they simply take the stock or fund price as of the close of the market on December 31st each year. They then use these amounts to set the year-end account fair market value. For self-directed accounts, such fair market values are not readily available, and it becomes the IRA account owner’s responsibility to obtain their self-directed investment values so that their custodian can properly report the account’s fair market value. The value of an account is important for a few reasons. First, the IRS requires it to be updated annually. Second, it is used to set required minimum distributions (RMDs) for those account holders over the age of 70 ½ with Traditional IRAs. Last, the account value is used when converting an entire account, or a particular investment or portion of the account, from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
What is “Fair Market Value?”
Fair market value of an investment has been broadly defined by the Court as:
“The price at which property would change hands between a hypothetical willing buyer and a hypothetical willing seller, neither being under any compulsion to buy or to sell, and both having reasonable knowledge of relevant facts.” U.S. v. Cartwright, 411 US 546 (1973).
Now here’s the hard part: Even though the IRS requires IRAs to update their fair market value on an annual basis, the Government Accountability Office noted in their recent report that:
“Current IRS guidance includes NO [emphasis added] guidance or advice to custodians or IRA owners regarding how to determine the FMV [fair market value]”. United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-17-02, Retirement Security Improved Guidance Could Help Account Owners Understand the Risks of Investing in Unconventional Assets. (Dec. 2016).
The absence of guidance, however, has not relieved IRA owners or their custodians from obtaining and reporting this information. While there is no specific fair market valuation guidance for IRAs, there are commonly accepted methods of reporting value used by professionals and companies within the self-directed IRA industry. Most of these methods have been adopted from law and regulations governing employer retirement plans or estates.
Methods to be used by Asset Type
The table below outlines preferred valuation methods that are commonly used in the industry for the most common self-directed IRA assets. As you will note, when the valuation is needed for a taxable event, such as a distribution or Roth conversion, greater detail and supporting information will be required as the valuation will result in tax being due.*
||Non-Taxable (Annual FMV)
||Taxable (RMD, distribution or conversion)
||Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) from a real estate professional is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept property tax assessor values or Zillow reports in non-taxable situations.
||Real estate appraisal is preferred. Some IRA custodians accept a broker’s price opinion.
||Value of a note can be reported by calculating the principal due plus any accrued and unpaid interest. This is the valuation method used for calculating the value of a note for estate tax purposes.
||Same as non-taxable, principal amount due plus accrued and un-paid interest. For notes in default, a third-party opinion as to value is typically required in order for the note to be written-down below face value.
||For bullion, use the spot value of the metal in question times the ounces owned. Spot value is widely reported on a daily basis on financial sites.
For acceptable coins, use market data for the coin in question via the Grey Sheets available at www.bullionvalues.com.
|Same as non-taxable.
|LLC, LP, or Private Company Interest
||Obtain a third party-opinion of value of the LLC interest. The opinion should rely on IRS Revenue Ruling 59-60. For asset holding companies, the valuation should focus on the value of the assets. For operating companies, the valuation should focus on earnings.
||Similar requirement, but the detail of the opinion should be more significant. For example, for an asset holding company where the IRA’s interest is determined by the assets of the LLC. A CMA would be acceptable for calculating that assets value in the company in an annual valuation. However, an appraisal of the real estate to calculate in that asset would be required in a taxable situation.
Since the valuation reporting policies of custodians vary, IRA owners should make sure that they understand their IRA custodian’s policies for valuations of the assets in question.
Our firm routinely assists clients with obtaining third-party opinions of value, and can assist IRA owners who need to produce a report or third party opinion as to an LLC or other investment interest held by an IRA. Call us at (888) 801-0010.
*Please note that there are clearly differences of opinions on these matters, and since there is no specific legal guidance for IRA valuations, please keep in mind that the table above is based on my own industry experience and opinions. Seek a licensed professional in all instances for your specific situation.
Many self-directed IRA investors use an IRA/LLC to make and hold their self-directed IRA investments. In essence, an IRA/LLC (aka “checkbook-controlled IRA”) is an LLC owned 100% by an IRA. For a summary and description of an IRA/LLC, please refer to my video here. While most self-directed investors are using the IRA/LLC to invest in real estate or other non-publicly traded assets, there are many instances where an IRA/LLC owner would like to invest the cash from their IRA/LLC checking account into stocks or other publicly-traded investments. This may arise with portions of cash that are not yet large enough to make a desired self-directed investment, or when the IRA/LLC is between investments, such as after the sale of an asset or investment and before a new self-directed investment may be found. Or, it could simply arise because the account owner finds a publicly traded opportunity that they would like to pursue using the IRA/LLC account funds and structure.
I. Can My IRA/LLC Establish a Brokerage Account to Buy Stocks?
Yes, an IRA/LLC may have a brokerage account to buy stocks or other publicly traded assets. This account must be established in the name of the LLC. The brokerage account cannot have a margin account whereby account trades on credit. A margin account typically requires the personal guarantee of the underlying IRA/LLC owner, and this would amount to an extension of credit prohibited transaction. Additionally, any profits due from the trading on credit, even if you could get around a personal guarantee, would be subject to unrelated business income tax (UBIT).
II. What Are the Pros and Cons of Having a Brokerage Account with an IRA/LLC That I Should Know About?
Uninvested or accumulating cash from an income producing asset often times sit without earning any income in an IRA/LLC. By having a brokerage account with an IRA/LLC, the cash could be invested into stocks or other publicly traded investments, but could still be somewhat liquid in the event that funds are needed for a self-directed investment.
Most brokerage firms do not have a specific account option for IRA/LLCs. As a result, most brokerage firms will simply treat the brokerage account as an LLC brokerage account. The problem with this is that they will send the IRS and your LLC tax reporting via IRS From 1099-B for trading income. While I’ve had many clients receive and ignore this, because the LLC is owned by their IRA, it does raise concern of an IRS audit for failure to report the 1099-B.
3. Potential Solution
TD Ameritrade has a specialty account for LLCs where you can identify that the account is owned by an IRA. This is optimal as it’s the only LLC brokerage account I’ve come across where the IRA can be identified as the owner of the LLC. Refer to TD Ameritrade’s Specialty Account Page and their account form here.
III. What are the Options?
A second option to establishing a brokerage account with your IRA/LLC is to simply return funds from the LLC back to the self-directed IRA. This is not taxable. It is a return of investment funds or profits to the IRA. Then transfer funds from the self-directed IRA to a brokerage IRA as a trustee-to-trustee transfer. This is also not taxable. Now, you can buy stocks with the IRA funds in the brokerage account. When you would like the funds back in the IRA/LLC for a self-directed investment, you would send funds from the brokerage IRA back to the self-directed IRA as a trustee-to-trustee transfer, and would then invest the funds from the self-directed IRA to the IRA/LLC. While this involves more steps, its cleaner in the end as the brokerage IRA will be set-up with no tax reporting to the IRS on trading income. In the end, both options are viable, but self-directed investors should understand the differences and requirements for each option before proceeding with a brokerage account with their IRA/LLC funds.