The prohibited transaction rules applicable to self directed IRAs prohibit not what your IRA can invest into but WHO your IRA may engage in a transaction with. For example, the prohibited transaction rules restrict my IRA from buying a rental property from my father. This is not because rental properties are prohibited to my IRA but because my father is prohibited by law from transaction with my IRA. My self directed IRA could buy a rental property from a third party seller whom I have no family or other business relationship with since there is nothing wrong in buying the rental property the question is just who am I buying it from. Congress decided to restrict investments with certain persons who could potentially collude with the IRA owner to unfairly avoid taxes. As a result, transactions with certain family members and business partners of an IRA owner are prohibited. The consequence for engaging in a prohibited transaction can be drastic (e.g. no longer have an IRA, penalties and taxes on distribution) so IRA owners must avoid them in all situations.
The prohibited transaction rules therefore provide the greatest restriction on using self directed IRA funds and must be understood by self directed IRA investors. These rules are found in IRC 4975 and state that a prohibited transaction occurs when an IRA engages in a transaction (e.g. buy, sell) with a disqualified person. The question immediately arises, who is a disqualified person to my IRA?
Categories of Persons Disqualified to Your SDIRA
There are essentially four categories of disqualified persons to your IRA and they are as follows.
- IRA Owner. The IRA owner is disqualified to his/her own IRA as the fiduciary making decisions for the account. IRC 4975(e)(2)(A), Harris v. Commissioner, 76 T.C.M. 748 (U.S. Tax Ct. 1994).
- Certain Family Members. Disqualified family members include the IRA owner’s spouse, children, spouses of children, grandchildren and their spouses, and the IRA owner’s parents and grandparents. Family member who are NOT disqualified persons are siblings (e.g. brothers and sisters), aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and parent in-laws (e.g. spouses parents). IRC 4975 (e)(2)(F), IRC 4975 (e)(6).
- Company Owned 50% or More by IRA Owner or Certain Family Members. Any Company that is owned 50% or more by the IRA Owner or Certain Family Members outlined above are disqualified to the IRA. For example, an LLC owned 30% by the IRA owner, 30% by the IRA owner’s spouse, and 40% by an un-related partner is a disqualified company to the IRA (owned 50% or more by disqualified persons) and any transaction between the IRA and the company would be a prohibited transaction. IRC 4975 (e)(2)(G).
- Key Persons in Company Owned 50% or More by IRA Owner or Certain Family Members. Any person who is a 10% or more owner of a company owned 50% or more by disqualified persons (e.g. number 3 above) or any person who is an officer, director, or manager of a disqualified company (owned 50% or more by disqualified persons) is also disqualified. For example, if my wife and I own 60% of a company and if Julie is an officer of that company then Julies is a disqualified person to my IRA. Additionally, if Julie was a 15% or more owner of the company she would also be prohibited to my IRA.
When you are dealing with unrelated persons (not related as family or as business partners) the prohibited transaction rules do not need to be analyzed but once family members or business partners are involved in any part of the transaction, the IRA owner must ensure that the prohibited transaction rules are not being violated.
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.