Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke UniversityDo 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.

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.

IRA Contribution Deadlines: Two Out of Three IRA Types Can’t be Extended

Exterior photo of the IRS building and sign with text reading "IRA Contribution Deadlines: Two Out of Three IRA Types Can't Be Extended."You have until April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 IRA contributions for Roth and Traditional IRAs. If you’re self-employed and are using a SEP, your deadline is determined by your company’s tax filing deadline (e.g. s-corp, partnership, or sole prop). So, if you were an s-corp or partnership in 2016, then your filing deadline was March 15th, 2017. II you are a sole prop, then the deadline is April 18th, 2017. If you extended your company return, that extension will also apply to your SEP IRA contributions. The table below breaks down the deadlines and extension options for Traditional, Roth and SEP IRAs.

Type of IRA Contribution Type Deadline Details
Traditional IRA Traditional, Deductible April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 219(f)(3); You can file your return claiming a contribution before the contribution is actually made.  Rev. Rul. 84-18.
Roth IRA Roth, Not Deductible April 18th, 2017: Due Date for Individual Tax Return Filing (not including extensions). IRC § 408A(c)(7).
SEP IRA  Employee, Deductible N/A: Employee contributions cannot be made to a SEP IRA plan.
Employer Contribution, Deductible March 15/April 15th: Due Date for Company Tax Return Filing (including extensions). IRC § 404(h)(1)(B).

As outlined above, you have until the 2016 individual tax return deadline of April 18th, 2017 to make 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions. The deadline for Traditional and Roth IRAs, however, does not include extensions. So, even if you extend your 2016 tax return, your 2016 Traditional and Roth IRA contributions are still due on April 18th, 2017.

SEP IRA contribution deadlines are based on the company tax return deadline, which could be March 15th if the company is taxed as a corporation (“c” or “s”) or partnership, and April 15th if it is a sole proprietorship. Keep in mind that this deadline includes extensions, so if you extend your company tax return filing, you will extend the time period to make 2016 SEP IRA contributions.

2016 Self-Directed IRA Tax Reporting Requirements

Self-Directed IRA investors should be aware of the following IRA tax reporting responsibilities.  Some of these items are completed by your custodian and some of them are the IRA owner’s sole responsibility. Here’s a quick summary of what should be reported to the IRS each year for your self-directed IRA.

IRA Custodian Files

Your IRA Custodian will file the following forms to the IRS annually.

IRS FORM PURPOSE WHAT DOES IT REPORT
Form 5498 Filed to the IRS by your custodian. No taxes are due or paid as a result of Form 5498.  

IRA contributions, Roth conversions, the account’s fair market value as of 12/31/16, and required minimum distributions taken.

 

Form 1099-R Filed to the IRS by your custodian to report any distributions or Roth conversions. The amounts distributed or converted are generally subject to tax and are claimed on your personal tax return. IRA distributions for the year, Roth IRA conversions, and also rollovers that are not direct IRA trustee-to-IRA trustee.


IRA Owner’s Responsibility

Depending on your self-directed IRA investments, you may be required to file the following tax return(s) with the IRS for your IRA’s investments/income.

IRS FORM DOES MY IRA NEED TO FILE THIS? DUE DATE
1065 Partnership Tax Return If your IRA is an owner in an LLC, LP, or other partnership, then the Partnership should file a 1065 Tax Return for the company to the IRS and should issue a K-1 to your IRA for its share of income or loss. Make sure the accountant preparing the company return knows to use your custodian’s tax ID for your IRA’s K-1’s and not your personal SSN (or your IRAs Tax ID if it has one for UBIT 990-T tax return purposes). If your IRA owns an LLC 100%, then it is disregarded for tax purposes (single-member LLC) and the LLC does not need to file a tax return to the IRS. March 15th, 6-month extension available
990-T IRA Tax Return (UBIT) If your IRA incurs Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT), then it is required to file a tax return. The IRA files a tax return and any taxes due are paid from the IRA. Most self-directed IRAs don’t need to file a 990-T for their IRA, but you may be required to file for your IRA if your IRA obtained a non-recourse loan to buy a property (UDFI tax), or if your IRA participates in non-passive real estate investments such as: Construction, development, or on-going short-term flips. You may also have UBIT if your IRA has received income from an active trade or business such as a being a partner in an LLC that sells goods and services (C-Corp dividends exempt). Rental real estate income (no debt leverage), interest income, capital gain income, and dividend income are exempt from UBIT tax. April 15th, 3-month extension available

Most Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve answered the most frequently asked questions below as they relate to your IRA’s tax reporting responsibilities.

Q: My IRA is a member in an LLC with other investors. What should I tell the accountant preparing the tax return about reporting profit/loss for my IRA?

A: Let your accountant know that the IRA should receive the K-1 (e.g. ABC Trust Company FBO John Doe IRA) and that they should use the Tax-ID of your custodian and not your personal SSN. Contact your custodian to obtain their Tax ID. Most custodians are familiar with this process, so it should be readily available.

Q: Why do I need to provide an annual valuation to my custodian for the LLC (or other company) my IRA owns?

A: Your IRA custodian must report your IRA’s fair market value as of the end of the year (as of 12/31/16) to the IRS on Form 5498 and in order to do this they must have an accurate record of the value of your IRA’s investments. If your IRA owns an LLC, they need to know the value of that LLC. For example, let’s say you have an IRA that owns an LLC 100% and that this LLC owns a rental property and that it also has a bank account with some cash. If the value of the rental property at the end of the year was $150,000, and if the cash in the LLC bank account is $15,000, then the value of the LLC at the end of the year is $165,000.

Q: I have a property owned by my IRA and I obtained a non-recourse loan to purchase the property. Does my IRA need to file a 990-T tax return?

A: Probably. A 990-T tax return is required if your IRA has income subject to UBIT tax. There is a tax called UDFI tax (Unrelated Debt Financed Income) that is triggered when your IRA uses debt to acquire an asset. Essentially, what the IRS does in this situation is they make you apportion the percent of your investment that is the IRA’s cash (tax favorable treatment) and the portion that is debt (subject to UDFI/UBIT tax) and your IRA ends up paying taxes on the profits that are generated from the debt as this is non-retirement plan money. If you have rental income for the year, then you can use expenses to offset this income. However, if you have $1,000 or more of gross income subject to UBIT, then you should file a 990-T tax return. In addition, if you have losses for the year, you may want to file 990-T to claim those losses as they can carry-forward to be used to offset future gains (e.g. sale of the property).

Q: How do I file a 990-T tax return for my IRA?

A: This is filed by your IRA and is not part of your personal tax return. If tax is due, you will need to send the completed tax form to your IRA Custodian along with an instruction to pay the tax due and your custodian will pay the taxes owed from the IRA to the IRS. Your IRA must obtain its own Tax ID to file Form 990-T. Your IRA custodian does not file this form or report UBIT tax to the IRS for your IRA. This is the IRA owner’s responsibility. Our law firm prepares and files 990-T tax returns for our self-directed IRA and 401(k) clients. Contact us at the law firm if you need assistance.

Sadly, not many professionals are familiar with the rules and tax procedures for self-directed IRAs so it is important to seek out those attorneys, accountants, and CPAs who can help you understand your self-directed IRA tax reporting obligations. Our law firm routinely advises clients and their accountants on the rules and procedures that I have summarized in this article and we can also prepare and file your 990-T tax return.

Alert: The RISE Act Will Drastically Impact Self-Directed IRAs

The Retirement Improvements and Savings Enhancements Act (“RISE Act“) has drastic changes and provisions that effect self-directed IRA investors. From mandatory third-party valuations on all retirement account investment transactions to changing the 50% disqualified company rule to 10%, the bill has some significant changes that will negatively affect your ability to self-direct your account. There are some favorable provisions for IRA owners, however, the negatives greatly outweigh the positives.

 

Most Important Provisions

The bill sponsor is Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) who is the Ranking Member of the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation. Here’s a quick run-down of the most troublesome provisions that apply to self-directed IRA investors:

  • Valuation Purchase/Sale Requirement. Mandatory Valuation Requirement for Private IRA (non-public stock market) Transactions: The new proposal seeks to require gifting valuation rules and standards for IRA transactions. This rule will force IRA owners to get a valuation before making any private investment. This valuation would include real estate, private company (e.g. LLC, LP, corporation), and note investments. The gifting valuation rules were created to value gifts where no value is set between a buyer and seller. mandating those same rules on actual transactions between an IRA and another unrelated party is unrealistic and unnecessary to establish actual fair market value.
  • 50% Rule is Reduced to a New 10% Rule: Changes the 50% rule that states a company is a disqualified person to an IRA when it is owned 50% or more by disqualified persons (e.g. IRA owner and certain family). The new rule makes a company disqualified when owned 10% or more by disqualified persons.
  • Roth IRAs Capped at $5M: Roth IRAs will be capped at $5M. Any amount over $5M must be distributed from the Roth IRA.
  • Eliminate Roth Conversions: Traditional IRA funds cannot be converted to Roth IRA funds. Roth IRAs will be allowed only if the account owner makes initial Roth IRA contributions and only when they meet the Roth IRA contribution limits, which restricts high-income earners.
  • Require RMD for Roth IRAs: Roth IRAs are currently not subject to required minimum distribution (“RMD”) rules because the amounts distributed do not result in tax. This rule will change and RMD will apply to Roth IRAs when the account holder reaches age 70 ½.

These proposals will have drastic impacts on self-directed IRA investors. The valuation requirement is perhaps the most dramatic as it will require valuations before an IRA can buy an asset and before it can sell an asset. Not only will this cause administrative issues and increased costs, but it will undoubtedly replace the ability of an IRA buyer or an IRA seller from transacting their IRA at the price and value they determine to represent the actual current fair market value of their investments.

I have written a detailed analysis of the bill which I plan to share with the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation. I welcome your input as a self-directed IRA investor and plan to advocate for common-sense rules that help self-directed investors take control of their retirement. My draft bill analysis can be accessed at the link below. Please send your comments to [email protected]

draft-rise-act-2016-analysis-by-mat-sorensen