The IRS Does Not Approve IRA Investments – “IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved” Terms Are False

Photo of the exterior of the IRS building in Washington, DC.There has been a significant increase in the amount of marketing directed towards IRA owners for non-publicly traded investments. Many of these investment sponsors and promoters are using marketing slogans like “IRS Approved” or “IRA Approved”. Don’t be fooled though, as the IRS does not review or approve investments, nor do they comment or issue statements on investments in an IRA. In fact, the IRS recently revised and updated IRS Publication 3125 titled, “The IRS Does Not Approve IRA Investments,” in an effort to inform IRA investors.

 

IRAs Can Invest into Non-Publicly Traded Investments (Real Estate, LLCs and Precious Metals)

Yes, it’s true that a self-directed IRA can invest into real estate, LLCs, LPs, private stock, venture or hedge funds, start-ups and qualifying precious metals, among other things. However, just because you can invest in all of these assets doesn’t mean that you should. Make sure you’re investing your IRA into assets you are familiar with, and with persons and companies with whom you have thoroughly vetted. Non-publicly traded investments can be easier to understand and vet than a mutual fund prospectus, but you need to be careful when investing your funds with another person or when buying investments from third-parties who regularly sell to IRA owners using comforting, yet totally false, representations like “IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved.”

“IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved” Representations are False

In Publication 3125, “The IRS Does Not Approve IRA Investments,” the IRS provided some guidelines for IRA owners to evaluate and protect their account from “IRA Approved Schemes.”

  1. Avoid any investment touted as “IRA Approved” or otherwise endorsed by the IRS.
  2. Don’t buy an investment on the basis of a television “infomercial” or radio advertisement.
  3. Beware of promises or no-risk, sky-high returns on exotic investments from your retirement account.
  4. Never transfer or rollover your IRA or other retirement funds directly to an investment promoter.
  5. Proceed with caution when you are encouraged to invest in a “general partnership” or “limited liability company”.
  6. Don’t be swayed by the fact that a bank or trust department is serving as an IRA custodian.
  7. Always check out an investment and promoter before you turn over your money.
  8. Educate yourself about IRAs and retirement planning.
  9. Exercise extra caution during tax season when it comes to making IRA investments.

As a self-directed IRA investor, you are solely responsible for investment decisions, and as a result you must make certain that you understand the investments you are selecting and the associated risks. Beware of slogans and terms like “IRA Approved” or “IRS Approved,” as such slogans are just false. In addition to the consideration from the IRS above, I’ve previously written my own “Self Directed IRA Investment Due Diligence Top Ten List” which includes additional tips and questions to ask when investing your hard-earned retirement plan dollars with others.

Take the IRS guidelines and my Top Ten List into consideration when investing your IRA, but in the end, don’t be scared about investing into non-publicly traded investments. Rather, keep the risk and opportunities in perspective, and realize that you may need to get out of your comfort zone by asking pointed questions, demanding additional documentation, or simply saying “no.” Remember: You are the best person to protect your retirement.

Self-Directed Beneficiary IRAs: RMD and Investing Tips

Photo of a man hugging his mother in the kitchen with the text "Self-Directed Beneficiary IRAs: RMD and Investing Tips."If you’ve inherited an IRA from a parent or other loved one, it is likely that you have a beneficiary IRA. These can be powerful accounts, but you need to understand the required minimum distribution (“RMD”) rules for your beneficiary IRA to properly utilize it. The inherited IRA may be a traditional or Roth IRA and there are three different distribution options you may elect when you inherit the IRA.

Distribution Options

You will have three distribution options upon the death of your loved one to receive the funds from their IRA. In general, the best option is the “Life Expectancy Method” as it allows you to delay the withdrawal of funds from the IRA, and allows the money invested to grow tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth). The three options are outlined fully below:

1. Lump Sum

The first option is to simply take a lump-sum and be taxed on the full distribution. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty (regardless of your age or their deceased owner), but you are taxed on the amount distributed if it is a traditional IRA. You’re also giving up the tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth) benefits of the account. Don’t take this option. It’s the worst tax and financial option you have.

2. Life Expectancy Method

The Life Expectancy Method is the best option. Under this option, you take distributions from the inherited IRA over your life-time based on the value of the account. These distributions are required for traditional IRAs and even for inherited Roth IRAs. For example, if you inherited a $100,000 IRA at age 50, you would have to take about $3,000 a year as a required minimum distribution each year. The RMD amount changes each year as you age and as the account value grows or decreases. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty. Traditional beneficiary IRA distributions are taxable to the beneficiary, and Roth IRA distributions are tax-free. And yes, beneficiary Roth IRAs are subject to RMD even though there is no RMD for regular Roth IRAs.

3. 5-Year Method

This option is available to all inherited Roth accounts, but is only available to inherited traditional IRAs where the deceased account owner was under age 70 1/2 at the date of their death. Under this option, the beneficiary IRA is not subject to RMD. However, it must be fully distributed by December 31st of the fifth year following the year of the account owner’s death. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty, and distributions are subject to tax. Again, this option is only available to traditional accounts.

Investing with a Self-Directed Beneficiary IRA

Yes, you can self-direct your beneficiary IRA. Before you do, make sure you understand the amount of funds you’ll need to take as an RMD, and that you will have available cash in the account to cover the those RMDs. As I described above, assume you are 50 and inherited a beneficiary IRA for $100,000. You will need to take annual distributions of around $3,000. So, if you invest all of the $100,000 into an illiquid asset, then you will be unable to take RMDs and force the IRA account to pay stiff penalties. Consequently, when making a self-directed investment from a beneficiary IRA, you must take into account the amount of the investment, the total value of the account, and the time-line of the investment (when will it generate cash back to the IRA). If you inherited the $100,000 account above, you may decide to only invest $70,000 of the beneficiary IRA into an illiquid investment (e.g. real estate or private company), while leaving the other $30,000 to be invested into liquid investments like publicly-traded stocks, CDs, cash or mutual funds. This will leave funds available for RMD until such time as the illiquid investment generates income or is sold for profit.

Stretching out the benefits of an inherited IRA can be powerful, but make sure you plan for RMDs before you make any self-directed investment from your beneficiary IRA.

Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke University with the text "Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses."Do you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.

Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.

10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses

Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.

1. Who can the IRA money be used for?

 Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.

2. What schools qualify?

Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.

3. What expenses qualify?

There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.

4. How much is exempt?

The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.

Example

Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.

Her expenses for the year are as follows:

  • Tuition: $22,000
  • Room and Board: $13,000
  • Books: $1,000
  • Supplies: $500
  • Equipment: $500
  • Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000

Jane received the following aid:

  • Federal Grant: $2,400
  • Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
  • Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
  • Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
  • Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600

You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.

For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.

Buying a Retirement Home With Your Self-Directed IRA

A common question among self-directed IRA investors is, “Can I buy a future retirement home with my IRA?” Yes, you can buy a future retirement home with your IRA, but you need to understand the rules and drawbacks before doing so. First, keep in mind that IRAs can only hold investments and you cannot go buy a residence or second home with your IRA for personal use. However, you can buy an investment property with a self-directed IRA (aka “SDIRA”) that you later distribute from your IRA and use personally.

 

The strategy essentially works in two phases. First, the IRA purchases the property and owns it as an investment until the IRA owner decides to retire. You’ll need to use a SDIRA for this type of investment. Second, upon retirement of the IRA owner (after age 59 ½), the IRA owner distributes the property via a title transfer from the SDIRA to the IRA owner personally and now the IRA owner may use it and benefit from it personally as the asset is outside the IRA. Before proceeding down this path, an SDIRA owner should consider a couple of key issues.

Avoid Prohibited Transactions

The prohibited transaction rules found in IRC Section 4975, which apply to all IRA investments, do not allow the IRA owner or certain family members to have any use or benefit from the property while it is owned by the IRA. The IRA must hold the property strictly for investment. The property may be leased to unrelated third parties, but it cannot be leased or used by the IRA owner or prohibited family members (e.g., spouse, kids, parents, etc.). Only after the property has been distributed from the self-directed IRA to the IRA owner may the IRA owner or family members reside at or benefit from the property.

Distribute the Property Fully Before Personal Use

The property must be distributed from the IRA to the IRA owner before the IRA owner or his/her family may use the property. Distribution of the property from the IRA to the IRA owner is called an “in-kind” distribution, and results in taxes due for traditional IRAs. For traditional IRAs, the custodian of the IRA will require a professional appraisal of the property before allowing the property to be distributed to the IRA owner. The fair market value of the property is then used to set the value of the distribution. For example, if my IRA owned a future retirement home that was appraised at $250,000, upon distribution of this property from my IRA (after age 59 ½) I would receive a 1099-R for $250,000 issued from my IRA custodian to me personally.

Because the tax burden upon distribution can be significant, this strategy is not one without its drawbacks. Some owners will instead take partial distributions of the property over time, holding a portion of the property personally and a portion still in the IRA to spread out the tax consequences of distribution. This can be burdensome though, as it requires appraisals each year to set the fair market valuation. While this can lessen the tax burden by keeping the IRA owner in lower tax brackets, the IRA owner and his/her family still cannot personally use or benefit from the property until it is entirely distributed from the IRA. Many investors will use an IRA/LLC and will transfer the LLC ownership over time from the IRA to the IRA owner to accomplish distribution.

For Roth IRAs, the distribution of the property will not be taxable as qualified Roth IRA distributions are not subject to tax. For an extensive discussion of the tax consequences of distribution, please refer to IRS Publication 590.

Additionally, keep in mind that the IRA owners should wait until after he/she turns 59 ½ before taking the property as a distribution, as there is an early withdrawal penalty of 10% for distributions before age 59 ½.

As stated at the outset of this article, while the strategy is possible, it is not for everyone and certainly is not the easiest to accomplish. As a result, self-directed IRA investors should make sure they understand the rules – no personal use while owned by the IRA – and drawbacks – taxes upon distribution and before personal use – before purchasing a future retirement home with their IRA.

Can Your SDIRA Own Bitcoin and Other Cryptocurrencies?

 

Yes, your IRA can invest in and own bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is a form of virtual currency using blockchain technology, and can be exchanged between parties for goods and services, or for dollars. From 2011 to July 2017, the value of Bitcoin has risen from $0.30 per Bitcoin to $2,550 per Bitcoin. As a result, we’ve seen a significant increase in the number of questions from investors whether their retirement account can invest in and own actual Bitcoin or other forms of cryptocurrency.

Can Your IRA Own Bitcoin?

Well, the short answer is: “Yes, your IRA can own Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin.” The only items an IRA cannot invest in is life insurance, S-Corp stock, and collectibles as mentioned in IRC 408(m), which refers to tangible personal property such as “art, rugs, coins, etc.” and “any other tangible personal property the Secretary determines.” Bitcoin is certainly an intangible item by all accounts and would not be considered tangible. As a result, an IRA can own Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency since such investments are not restricted.

How Are Bitcoin Gains Taxed?

The IRS issued IRS Notice 2014-21 addressing the taxation of Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, and stated that Bitcoin and other forms of virtual currency are property. The sale of property by an IRA is generally treated as capital gain, so the buying and selling of cryptocurrency for investment purposes wouldn’t trigger unrelated business income tax (UBIT) or other adverse tax consequences that can occasionally arise in an IRA.

How Do I Own Bitcoin with My SDIRA?

There are three steps to own Bitcoin or other cryptocurrency with your IRA:

1. First, you will need a self-directed IRA with a custodian who allows for alternative assets, such as LLCs.

2. Second, you will invest funds from the IRA into the LLC. Your IRA will own an LLC 100%, and that LLC will have a business checking account. For more details on IRA/LLCs, please check out my prior video here.

3. And third, the IRA/LLC will use its LLC business checking account to establish a wallet to invest and own Bitcoin through the wallet. The most widely used Bitcoin wallet is through a company called Coinbase, and you can use your wallet on Coinbase to buy, sell and digitally store your cryptocurrency.

There are already certain publicly-traded funds and other avenues (e.g. Bitcoin Investments Trust) where you can own shares of a fund that in turn owns Bitcoin. But, if you want to own Bitcoin directly with your IRA, you’d need to follow the steps outlined above. Keep in mind, Bitcoin and other forms of cryptocurrency have significant potential in the digital age. However, as with any new market investment, make sure you proceed with caution, and don’t “bet the farm” or “go all in” on just one investment or deal.