There are 28 trillion dollars in retirement plans in the United States. Do you know that these funds can be invested into your business? Yes, it’s true, IRAs and 401(k)s can be used to invest in start-ups, private companies, real estate, and small businesses. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs and retirement account owners didn’t even know that retirement accounts can invest in private companies but you’ve been able to do it for over 30 years.
Think of who owns these funds: It’s everyday Americans, it’s your cousin, friend, running partner, neighbor…it’s you. In fact, for many Americans, their retirement account is their largest concentration of invest-able funds. Yet, you’ve never asked anyone to invest in your business with their retirement account. Why not? How much do you think they have in their IRA or old employer 401(k)? How attached do you think they are to those investments? These are the questions that have unlocked hundreds of millions of dollars to be invested in private companies and start-ups.
How Many People Are Doing This?
Recent industry surveys revealed that there are one million retirement accounts that are self-directed into private companies, real estate, venture capital, private equity, hedge funds, start-ups, and other so-called “alternative” investments (e.g. Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies). It is a sliver of the overall retirement account market, but it’s growing in popularity.
So, how does it work? How can these funds be properly invested into your business? If you ask your CPA or lawyer, the typical response is, “It’s possible, but very complicated, so we don’t recommend it.” In other words, they’ve heard of it, but they don’t know how it works, and they don’t want to look bad guessing. If you ask a financial adviser, particularly your own, they’ll talk about how it’s such a bad idea while thinking about how much fees they’ll lose when you stop buying mutual funds, annuities, and stocks that they make commissions or other fees from. Well, not all financial advisers, but unfortunately too many do.
Now, there are some legal and tax issues that need to be complied with, but that’s what good lawyers and accounts are for, right? And yes, there is greater risk in private company or start-up investments so self-directed IRA investors need to conduct adequate due diligence and they shouldn’t invest all of their account into one private company investment. So how does it work?
What is a Self-Directed IRA?
In order to invest into a private company, start-up, or small business, the retirement account holder must have a self-directed IRA? So, what is a self-directed IRA? A self-directed IRA is a retirement account that can be invested into any investment allowed by law. If your account is with a typical IRA or 401(k) company, such as Fidelity, Vanguard, TD Ameritrade, Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, then you can only invest in investments allowed under their platform, and these companies deem private company investments as “administratively unfeasible” to hold so they won’t allow your IRA or 401(k) to invest in them (some make exceptions for ultra-high net-worth clients, $50M plus accounts). As a result, the first step when investing in a private company with retirement account funds is to rollover or transfer the funds, without tax consequence, to a self-directed custodian who will allow your IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA, HSA, or Solo 401(k) to be invested into a private company. My company, Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company, handles self-directed IRAs and our clients have invested millions in private companies.
Legal Tip: If an investor’s retirement account is with their current employer’s retirement plan (e.g. 401(k)), they won’t be able to change their custodian until they leave that employer or until they reach retirement age (59.5 years old or 55 under some plans). So, for now, they’re 401(k) is usually limited to buying mutual funds they don’t understand and don’t want.
Sell Corporation Stock or LLC Units to Self-Directed IRAs
Are you seeking capital for your business in exchange for stock or other equity? If so, you should consider offering shares or units in your company to retirement account owners. You don’t need to wait until your company is publicly traded to sell ownership to retirement accounts. Here are a few well-known companies who had individuals with self-directed IRAs invest in them before they were publicly traded: Facebook, Staples, Sealy, PayPal, Domino’s, and Yelp, just to name a few.
You can also raise capital for real estate purchases or equipment whereby a promissory note is offered to the IRA investor who acts as lender, and the funds are usually secured by the real estate or equipment being purchased. There are many investment variations available, but the most common is an equity investment purchasing shares or units where the IRA becomes a shareholder or note investment whereby the IRA becomes a lender. Keep in mind, you need to comply with state and federal securities laws when raising money from any investor.
Need to Know #1: Prohibited Transactions
There are two key rules to understand when other people invest their retirement account into your business. First, the tax code restricts an IRA or 401(k) from transacting with the account owner personally or with certain family (e.g. parents, spouse, kids, etc.). This restriction is known as the prohibited transaction rule. See IRC 4975 and IRS Pub 590A. Consequently, if you own a business personally you can’t have your own IRA or your parents IRA invest into your company to buy your stock or LLC units. However, more distant family members such as siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles could move their retirement account funds to a self-directed IRA to invest in your company. And certainly, unrelated third-parties would not be restricted by the prohibited transaction rules from investing in your company. What if you are only one of the founders or partners of a business, and you want to invest your IRA or your spouse’s IRA into the company? This is possible if your ownership and control is below 50%, but this question is very complicated and nuanced, so you’ll want to discuss it with your attorney or CPA who is familiar with this area of the tax law.
If a prohibited transaction occurs, the self-directed IRA is entirely distributed. That’s a pretty harsh consequence and one that makes compliance with this rule critical.
Need to Know #2: UBIT Tax
The second rule to understand is a tax known as Unrelated Business Income Tax (“UBIT”, “UBTI”). UBIT is a tax that can apply to an IRA when it receives “business” income. IRAs and 401(k)s don’t pay tax on the income or gains that go back to the account so long as they receive “investment” income. Investment income would include rental income, capital gain income, dividend income from a c-corp, interest income, and royalty income. If you’ve owned mutual funds or stocks with your retirement account, the income from these investments always falls into one of these “investment” income categories. However, when you go outside of these standardized forms of investment, you can be outside of “investment” income and you just might be receiving “business” income that is subject to the dreaded “unrelated business income tax.” This tax rate is at 37% at about $12,000 of taxable income annually. That’s a hefty rate, so you want to make sure you avoid it or otherwise understand and anticipate it when making investment decisions. The most common situation where a self-directed IRA will become subject to UBIT is when the IRA invests into an operational business selling goods or services who does not pay corporate income tax. For example, let’s say my new business retails goods on-line, and is organized as an LLC and taxed as a partnership. This is a very common form of private business and taxation, but one that will cause UBIT tax for net profits received by self-directed IRA. If, on the other hand, the same new business was a c-corporation and paid corporate tax (that’s what c-corps do), then the profits to the self-directed IRA would be dividend income, a form of investment income, and UBIT would not apply. Consequently, self-directed IRAs should presume that UBIT will apply when they invest into an operational business that is an LLC, but should presume that UBIT will not apply when they invest into an operational business that is a c-corporation.
Legal Tip: IRAs can own c-corporation stock, LLC units, LP interest, but they cannot own s-corporation stock because IRAs and 401(k)s do NOT qualify as s-corporation shareholders.
Now, if you’re an LLC raising capital from other people’s IRAs or 401(k)s, you should have a section in your offering documents that notifies people of potential UBIT tax on their investment. UBIT tax is paid by the retirement account annually on the net profits the account receives so it doesn’t cost the company raising the funds any additional money or tax. It costs the retirement account investor since UBIT is paid by the retirement account. Despite the hefty tax, many IRAs and 401(k)s will still invest when UBIT is present as they may be willing to pay the tax on a well-performing investment or their investment strategy. Alternatively, many self-directed IRAs may be investing with an intent to sell their ownership in the LLC as the mechanism to receive their planned return on investment. When selling their LLC ownership, the gain in the LLC units would be capital gain income and would not be subject to UBIT.
If the investment from the self-directed IRA was via a note or other debt instrument, then the profits to the IRA are simply interest income and that income is always investment income and is not subject to UBIT tax. Many companies raise capital from IRAs for real estate purchases or for equipment purchases. These loans from an IRA or IRA(s) are often secured by the real estate or equipment being purchased and the IRA ends up earning interest income like a private lender.
So, here’s a brief summary of what we’ve learned. First, there’s $28 trillion in retirement plans in the U.S. These retirement accounts can be used to invest into your start-up or private company. You need to comply with the prohibited transaction rules and you can’t invest your own account or certain family member’s account into your business as that would invalidate the IRA. But everyone else’s IRA can invest into your company. And lastly, depending on how the company is structured (LLC or C-Corp), and how the investment is designed (equity or debt/loan), there may be UBIT tax on the profits from the investment. Remember, UBIT tax usually arises for IRAs in operating businesses structured as LLCs where the company doesn’t pay a corporate tax on their net profits. This income is pushed down to the owners and in the case of an IRA this can cause UBIT tax liability.
Here’s the bottom line, retirement account funds can be a significant source of funding and investment for your business, so it’s worth some time and effort to learn how these funds can most efficiently be utilized. While there are some rules unique to retirement accounts they can easily be understood and planned for.
Business owners and investors doing business in multiple states often ask the question of whether their company, that is set up in one state needs to be registered into the other state(s) where they are doing business. This registration from your state of incorporation/organization into another state where you also do business is called a foreign registration. For example, let’s say I’m a real estate investor in Arizona and end up buying a rental property in Florida. Do I need to register my Arizona LLC that I use to hold my real estate investments into Florida to take ownership of this property? The answer is generally yes, but after reviewing a few states laws on the subject I decided to outline the details of when you need to register your LLC or Corporation into another state where you are not incorporated/organized. (Please note that the issue of whether state taxes are owed outside of your home state when doing business in multiple states is a different analysis).
In analyzing whether you need to register your out of state company into a state where you do business or own property it is helpful to understand two things: First, what does the state I’m looking to do business in require of out of state companies; and Second, what is the penalty for failure to comply.
When Do I Need to Register Foreign?
First, a survey of a few state statutes on foreign registration of out of state companies shows that the typical requirement for when an out of state company must register foreign into another state is when the out of state company is deemed to be “transacting business” into the other state. So, the next question is what constitutes “transacting business”? The state laws vary on this but here are some examples of what constitutes “transacting business” for purposes of foreign registration filings.
- Employees or storefront located in the foreign registration state.
- Ownership of real property that is leased in the foreign registration state. Note that some states (e.g. Florida) state that ownership of property by an out of state LLC does not by itself require a foreign registration (e.g. a second home or maybe land) but if that property was rented then foreign registration is required.
Here is an example of what does not typically constitute “transacting business” for foreign registration requirements.
- Maintaining a bank account in the state in question.
- Holding a meeting of the owners or management in the state in question.
So, in summary, the general rule is that transacting business for foreign registration requirements occurs when you make a physical presence in the state that results in commerce. Ask, do I have employees or real property in the state in question that generates income for my company? If so, you probably need to register. If not, you probably don’t need to register foreign. Note that there are some nuances between states and I’ve tried to generalize what constitutes transacting business so check with your attorney or particular state laws when in question.
What is the Penalty if I Don’t Register Foreign?
Second, what is the penalty and consequence for failing to file a foreign registration when one was required? This issue had a few common characteristics among the states surveyed. Many company owners fear that they could lose the liability protection of the LLC or corporation for failing to file a foreign registration when they should have but most states have a provision in their laws that states something like the following, “A member [owner] of a foreign limited liability company is not liable for the debts and obligations of the foreign limited liability company solely by reason of its having transacted business in this state without registration.” A similar provision to this language was found in Arizona, California and Florida, but this provision is not found in all states that I surveyed. This language is good for business owners since it keeps the principal asset protection benefits of the company in tact in the event that you fail to register foreign. On the other hand, many states have some other negative consequences to companies that fail to register foreign. Here is a summary of some of those consequences.
- The out of state company won’t be recognized in courts to sue or bring legal action in the state where the business should be registered as a foreign company.
- Penalty of $20 per day that the company was “transacting business” in the state when it should have been registered foreign into the state but wasn’t. This penalty maxes out at $10,000 in California. Florida’s penalty is a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $1,000 per year of violation. Some states such as Arizona and Texas do not charge a penalty fee for failure to file.
- The State where you should have registered as a foreign company becomes the registered agent for your company and receives legal notices on behalf of your company. This is really problematic because it means you don’t get notice to legal actions or proceedings affecting your company and it allows Plaintiff’s to sue your company and to send notice to the state without being required to send notice to your company. Now, presumably, the state will try to get notice to your company but what steps the states actually takes and how much time that takes is something I couldn’t find. With twenty to thirty day deadlines to respond in most legal actions I wouldn’t put much trust in a state government agency to get me legal notice in a timely manner nor am I even certain that they would even try.
- In addition to the statutory issues written into law there are some practical issues you will face if your out of state company is not registered into a state where you transact business. For example, some county recorders in certain states won’t allow title to transfer into your out of state company unless the LLC or corporation is registered foreign into the state where the property is located. It is also common to run into insurance and banking issues for your company until you register foreign into the state where the income generating property, employee, or storefront is located.
In summary, you should register your company as a foreign company in every state where you are “transacting business”. Generally speaking, transacting business occurs when you have a storefront in the foreign state, employees in the foreign state, or property that produces income in the foreign state. Failure to file varies among the states but can result in penalties from $1,000 to $10,000 a year and failure to receive legal notices and/or be recognized in court proceedings. Bottom line, if you are transacting business outside of your state of incorporation/organization you should register as a foreign entity in the other state(s) to ensure proper legal protections in court and to avoid costly penalties for non-compliance.
The IRS announced new contribution amounts for retirement accounts in 2018, and there are some winners and losers in the bunch.
The biggest win goes to 401(k) owners, including Solo K owners, who saw employee contribution amounts go from $18,000 to $18,500. Health savings account (HSA) owners won a small victory with individual contribution maximums increasing $50 to $3,450 and family contribution amounts increasing by $150 to $6,900.
However, IRA owners lost with no increase in the maximum contribution amount for Traditional or Roth IRAs. The IRA maximum contribution amount remains at $5,500 and hasn’t increased since 2013.
Here’s a quick breakdown on the changes:
- 401(k) contributions also increased for employees and employers: Employee contribution limitations increased from $18,000 to $18,500 for 2018. The additional catch-up contribution for those 50 and older stays the same at $6,000. The annual maximum 401(k) (defined contribution) total contribution amount increased from $54,000 to $55,000 ($61,000 for those 50 and older).
- HSA contribution limits increased from $3,400 for individuals and $6,750 for families to $3,450 for individuals and $6,900 for families.
- IRA contribution limitations (Roth and Traditional) stayed at $5,500, as did the $1,000 catch-up amount for those 50 and older.
There were additional modest increases to defined benefit plans and to certain income phase-out rules. Please refer to the IRS announcement for more details here.
These accounts provide tax advantageous ways for an individual to either save for retirement or to pay for their medical expenses. If you’re looking for tax deductions, you should determine which of these accounts is best for you. Keep in mind there are qualifications and phase out rules that apply, so make sure you’re getting competent advice about which accounts should be set up in your specific situation.
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.”
- Avoid any investment touted as “IRA Approved” or otherwise endorsed by the IRS.
- Don’t buy an investment on the basis of a television “infomercial” or radio advertisement.
- Beware of promises or no-risk, sky-high returns on exotic investments from your retirement account.
- Never transfer or rollover your IRA or other retirement funds directly to an investment promoter.
- Proceed with caution when you are encouraged to invest in a “general partnership” or “limited liability company”.
- Don’t be swayed by the fact that a bank or trust department is serving as an IRA custodian.
- Always check out an investment and promoter before you turn over your money.
- Educate yourself about IRAs and retirement planning.
- 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.
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.
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.