Asset Protection for Self-Directed IRAs

Photo of large bank vault opened with the text "Asset Protection for Self-Directed IRAs"When analyzing asset protection for self directed IRAs we must consider two types of potential threats. First, we must analyze how a creditor can collect against an IRA when the creditor has a judgment or claim against the IRA owner personally. Secondly, and most importantly for self directed IRA owners, we must analyze how a creditor can collect against an IRA or its owner when the IRAs investment incurs a claim or judgment.

There has been much written on the protections to retirement plans that prevents a creditor of the IRA owner from collecting against the IRA to satisfy their judgment.  Various federal and state laws provide this protection which prohibits a creditor of an IRA owner from collecting or seizing the assets of an IRA or other retirement plan.  For example, if an individual personally defaults on a loan in his or her personal name and then gets a judgment against them the creditor may collect against the individual’s personal bank accounts, non retirement plan investment accounts, wages, and other non-exempt assets but is prohibited from collecting against the IRA or other retirement plans of the individual. Even in the case of bankruptcy a retirement plan is considered an exempt asset from the reaches of the creditors being wiped out. U.S. Bankruptcy Code, 11 U.S.C. §522. Because of these asset protection benefits retirement plans are excellent places to hold assets outside the reach or creditors.

The second asset protection issue and the focus of this article is to consider how an is IRA protected from claims arising from the IRA’s investments and activities? This issue is one that is particularly important to self directed IRA accounts since some self directed IRA investments are made into assets that can create liability to the IRA and the protections preventing a creditor of the IRA owner against the IRA assets does not apply to liabilities arising from the IRAs investments. In other words, if the IRA has a liability the IRA is subject to the claims of creditors. For example, if a self directed IRA owns a rental property and the tenant in that property slips and falls the tenant can sue the self directed IRA who owned and leased the property to the tenant. Consequently, the IRAs assets are subject to the collection of the creditor including the property the IRA owned and leased to the tenant as well as the other assets of the IRA. But what about the IRA owner and their personal assets, are their personal assets also at risk?

Let’s analyze this issue further and look at whether a creditor/plaintiff against the IRA can also sue the IRA owner personally if the IRA’s assets are not sufficient to satisfy the judgment against the IRA. IRC § 408 states that an IRA is a trust created when an individual establishes an IRA by signing IRS form 5305 (this form is completed, with some variations, with every IRA) with a bank or qualified custodian. Courts have analyzed what an IRA is under law and have stated that they are a trust or special deposit of the individual for the benefit of the IRA owner. First Nat’l Bank v. Estate of Thomas Philip, 436 N.E. 2d 15 (1992). In other words, the IRA is not a separate entity or trust which would be exempt from creditor protection of its underlying owner. Since the IRA is a trust that is revocable and terminated at the discretion of the IRA owner, each investment in fact is truly controlled by the IRA owner as her or she could terminate the IRA at any time and take ownership in their personal name. As a result, the IRA is akin to a revocable living trust used for estate planning which trust is commonly understood by lawyers and courts to provide no asset protection and prevention of creditors from pursuing the trust creator and owner from liabilities and judgments that arise in the trust. Following this same rationale, a self directed IRA would likely be subjected to a similar downfall in the event of a large liability which is not satisfied by the assets of the IRA. As a consequence, the personal assets of the IRA owner may be at risk.

As a result of the asset protection liabilities for self directed IRAs, we recommend that self directed IRA owners consider an IRA/LLC for the asset protection reasons that many individuals use LLC’s in their personal investment and business activities. Simply put, an LLC prevents the creditor of the LLC from being able pursue the owner of the LLC (in this case the IRA). An IRA/LLC is an LLC owned typically 100% by the IRA and the LLC would operate and take ownership of the investments and the liabilities similar to an LLC used by an individual. For example, instead of the IRA taking ownership of a rental property directly and leasing it to a tenant the IRA/LLC would instead take title to the property and would lease the property to the tenant. When the IRA/LLC owns and leases the property any claims or liabilities that arise are contained in the LLC and as a result of the LLC laws a creditor is prevented from going after the LLC owner (in this case the IRA, or the IRA owner).

There are certain types of self directed IRA investments that benefit greatly from the asset protection offered by an IRA/LLC. Rental real estate owned by an IRA achieves significant asset protection benefits from an IRA/LLC since rental real estate can create liabilities to their owner. Other self directed IRA investments such as promissory note loans, precious metals, or land investments do not have the same asset protection issues and potential to create liability for the IRA and as a result an IRA/LLC isn’t as beneficial from an asset protection perspective for these types of investments.

What to Use?: A Warranty, Grant or Quit Claim Deed

When it comes to transferring property, such as our rental properties into LLCs and our personal residence into a Trust, it can be confusing understanding the differences between a Quit Claim Deed, Warranty Deed and other terms that may be thrown out.

Some states use the term “Grant Deed”, California being one of the most preeminent. The reality is that a Grant Deed can be used as a Quitclaim Deed OR a Warranty Deed. It essentially depends on the verbiage used inside the terms of the Deed itself. Bottom line- Make sure that you look at the language used in the deed itself. Don’t think that because you have a Grant Deed you have all of the benefits of a Warranty Deed. Here is a brief description of each type of Deed:

Quitclaim Deed

A quitclaim deed transfers whatever ownership interest a person has in a property. It makes no guarantees about the extent of the person’s interest. Quitclaim deeds are also frequently used when there is a “cloud” on title — that is, when a search reveals that a previous owner or some other individual, like the heir of a previous owner, may have some claim to the property. The transferor can sign a quitclaim deed to transfer any remaining interest.

Warranty Deed

A warranty deed transfers ownership and explicitly promises the buyer that the transferor has good title to the property, meaning it is free of liens or claims of ownership. Also, whatever the ‘title’ of the deed is you may use, check the verbiage in the deed itself to understand what warranties you may be making, if any. The transferor guarantees that he or she will compensate the buyer if that turns out to be wrong. The warranty deed may make other promises as well, to address particular problems with the transaction.

Our Recommendation

Always double check the ‘local’ state and county laws regarding the type of deed to use when transferring property and what the different types of deeds actually provide. HOWEVER, we generally recommend the Warranty Deed when transferring property to yourself, your trust, or your own company; because we want to make sure that the Title Policy and all of its benefits transfer to the Grantee of your deed.

 

LLC Versus Umbrella Policy

Image of an umbrella protecting some stacks of money with the text "LLC Versus Umbrella Policy."Many real estate investors and landlords often ask whether they should use an umbrella insurance policy or a LLC to protect them from liabilities that may arise on their rental property. An LLC protects the owner of the LLC from liabilities that arise on any property in the LLC and prevents a plaintiff from being able to go after the LLC owner personally. As a result, we often say that an LLC protects a business owner’s personal assets from the risks and liabilities of the LLC business. An umbrella policy is coverage above and beyond the typical property insurance and covers additional risks and adds additional coverage to a typical property insurance policy.

Issues and Factors

There are many issues and factors to consider in making this decision and there is no one-sized fits all recommendation. In many instances we recommend that you have both an LLC and an umbrella policy and in other instances we may recommend just an LLC or just an umbrella policy. The first factor to consider is the cost. The cost of an LLC in our office is $800 and on average you can expect about $200 in fees a year to keep that LLC active with the State (about $900 annually in California, each state is different). As a result, the major cost of an LLC is in the first year but you can plan on having about $200 in fees each year (each state is different) to keep your LLC active. If you have a partnership LLC then you also have the cost of a LLC partnership tax return but the LLC also provides a significant amount of partnership advantages and protections.

An umbrella policy on the other hand is typically paid for monthly. Let’s say you are able to get $1M in umbrella protection at a cost of $50 a month. That would run you about $600 a year. Insurance policies have benefits which include attorneys whom the insurance company will appoint and pay to defend you (and protect themselves from having to pay) but also contain certain exclusions to coverage that may leave you with no coverage for the liability you incur. Another important factor to consider is the type of property you own. If you own a multi-unit property or commercial property we would recommend having both an LLC and an umbrella policy because you have more liability exposure when you have more tenants. On the other hand, if you have a single family rental in an otherwise good neighborhood where you feel less likely to be sued then we may only recommend an LLC or an umbrella policy on its own. Bottom line, consider both an LLC and an umbrella policy in your analysis and get quotes and advice upon which to make an informed decision so that you are protecting your assets in the most efficient and effective way as possible.