Solo 401(k) plans have grown significantly and are often used by self-directed investors. Solo 401(k)s are an excellent tool for self employed persons to maximize contributions in their own business or self-employment just like large companies who offer plans for their employees. The basic rules for solo 401(k)s are that you must be self-employed and that you must have a no other employees other than the business owner and family. As happens with many good things, this is starting to get over-sold and we are seeing common problems arise with persons who create them on-line or with the assistance of someone who has no credentials or experience outside of creating a catchy website. Here are a few things to watch out for.
Top Three Mistakes in Solo 401(k) Plans
1. Failure to Update/Amend– Pursuant to Revenue Procedure 2007-44, 401(k) plans shall be amended and restated every six years to conform with current law. The company who provided your plan document, usually what is called a pre-approved plan document for solo 401(k)’s, should be providing you with these updates so that your plan stays in compliance with the amendment cycles established by the IRS. Failure to properly update the plan can result in significant penalties and revocation of tax status.
2. Using an LLC With Rental Income as The Employer/Company – Solo 401(k)s must be established by an employer company. Unlike IRAs, where any individual may establish an account, a 401(k) may only be established by a company and is a benefit for its employees. For example, a solo 401(k) for a self-employed real estate agent with no other employees is created for the real estate agent who is the sole employee/owner. For many self-employed persons who have no other employees, this type of 401(k) is an excellent retirement plan too.
Unfortunately, the solo 401(k) is being oversold and over promoted to real estate investors who only own rentals. We have seen many promoters (operating out of a basement somewhere) who state that you can establish a solo 401(k) with your LLC that owns rental real estate. After all, they say, the LLC is a company and you are the only owner. Therefore this company can establish a solo 401(k). This is only partly true. The LLC that owns rental properties is not a proper entity in which to establish a solo 401(k) since the LLC receives “rental income” and since the owners of the LLC are not considered “employees” receiving wages or earned income that may be contributed to a retirement account. Rental income cannot be contributed to a retirement account and as a result the owner of the LLC is not an employee or person receiving earned income that qualifies to have a solo 401(k) account. All 401(k)s, solo 401(k)s included, must be established by a company for the benefit of its employees with wages or earned income. See IRS Publication 560. As a result, we recommend that clients use companies where there is wage income (e.g. s-corps) or self-employment income that creates earned income on schedule C be used to establish a solo 401(k). While an LLC may be used to adopt a solo 401(k), that would only be the case if the LLC receives ordinary income for its owner that is then claimed on schedule C of the owner’s tax return.
3. Failing to File Form 5500-EZ – In general, 401(k)s are required to file a return called from 5500. Solo 401(k)s, however, have some exemptions to the 5500 filing requirement but there are many situations where a solo 401(k) is still required to file an annual form 5500-EZ return. The first instance where a 5500-EZ tax return is required is when the solo 401(k) has over $250,000 in assets. The second instance is when the plan is terminated. Regardless of assets, a form 5500 must still be filed at termination.
Our law firm has experience in creating solo 401(k)s that can be self-trustee’d and self-directed and we also assist our clients with annual maintenance, plan amendments, and required annual 5500-EZ filings. Contact us at the law firm to learn more information about our services.
Many self-directed investors have the option of choosing between a self-directed IRA or a self-directed solo 401k. Both accounts can be self-directed so that you can invest into any investment allowed by law such as real estate, LLCs, precious metals, or private company stock. However, depending on your situation, you may choose one account type over the other. What are the differences? When should you choose one over the other?
Must be an individual with earned income or funds in a retirement account to rollover.
Must be self-employed with no other employees besides the business owner and family/partners.
$5,500 max annual contribution. Additional $1,000 if over 50.
$53,000 max annual contribution (it takes $140K of wage/se income to max out). Contributions are employee and employer.
Traditional & Roth
You can have a Roth IRA and/or a Traditional IRA. The amount you contribute to each is added together in determining total contributions.
A solo 401(k) can have a traditional account and a roth account within the same plan. You can convert traditional sums over to Roth as well.
Cost and Set-Up
You will work with a self-directed IRA custodian who will receive the IRA contributions in a SDIRA account. Most of the custodians we work with have an annual fee of $300-$350 a year for a self-directed IRA.
You must use an IRS preapproved document when establishing a solo 401k. This adds additional cost over an IRA. Our fee for a self-directed and self-trusteed solo 401(k) is $1,200.
An IRA must have a third party custodian involved on the account (e.g. bank. Credit union, trust company) who is the trustee of the IRA.
A 401(k) can be self trustee’d, meaning the business owner can be the trustee of the 401(k). This provides for greater control but also greater responsibility.
A self-directed IRA is invested through the self directed IRA custodian. A self-directed IRA can be subject to a tax called UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.
A Solo 401(k) is invested by the trustee of the 401(k) which could be the business owner. A solo 401(k) is exempt from UDFI/UBIT on income from debt leveraged real estate.
Keep in mind that the solo 401(k) is only available to self-employed persons while the self-directed IRA is available to everyone who has earned income or who has funds in an existing retirement account that can be rolled over to an IRA.
Based on the differences outlined above, a solo 401(k) is generally a better option for someone who is self-employed and still trying to maximize contributions as the solo 401(k) has much higher contribution amounts. On the other hand, a self-directed IRA is a better option for someone who has already saved for retirement and who has enough funds in their retirement accounts that can be rolled over and invested via a self-directed IRA as the self-directed IRA is easier to and cheaper to establish.
Another major consideration in deciding between a solo 401(k) and self-directed IRA is whether there will be debt on real estate investments. If there is debt and if the account owner is self-employed, they are much better off choosing a solo 401(k) over an IRA as solo 401(k)s are exempt from UDFI tax on leveraged real estate.
Choosing between a self-directed IRA and a solo 401(k) is a critical decision when you start self-directing your retirement. Make sure you consider all of the differences before you establish your new account.
One of the most common tax minimization strategies used by operational small business owners is known as the salary/dividend or salary/net income split. This strategy can only be properly executed in an s-corporation where a business owner can pay themselves a portion of income in salary and a portion of income in dividend or net profit. The ultimate goal is to pay as little salary as possible (and therefore as much net income as possible) so as to minimize the amount of self employment taxes that are due.
This strategy cannot be utilized in a c-corporation nor can it be utilized in an LLC or sole proprietorship. It is only possible in an s-corporation as similar income running through a sole proprietorship or an LLC is entirely subject to self employment tax as income cannot be split between salary and net income in an LLC or sole proprietorship. Also, keep in mind that such a strategy is not utilized in passive business structures such as real estate businesses as rental income, interest income, and other passive income is exempt from self employment tax and therefore it is not necessary to implement the income splitting technique of the s-corporation.
In short, the strategy is implemented by “splitting” the income that is payable to the s-corporation owner into two categories: salary and net income (aka dividend). The reason this splitting of income is advantageous is that net income received by the s-corporation owner is not subject to the 15.3% self employment tax that is otherwise due and payable on salary. For every $10,000 of income an s-corporation owner can classify as net income as opposed to salary the business owner will save $1,530. Keep in mind that after about $100,000 of salary the savings of pushing additional income to net income is reduced as the self employment tax rate drops to 2.9%. It is still certainly worth implementing at higher income but the savings are then made at the 2.9% rate.
Watson v. Commissioner
When this strategy was first utilized many years ago, some taxpayers decided to just pay all of their income out as net income and elected to take no salary or wages and therefore pay no self employment tax. This was quickly challenged by the IRS and Revenue Ruling 59-221 was issued which stated that a business owner who renders services to their business must take “reasonable compensation” for the services rendered. Over the years, the Courts have ruled on many cases of what is reasonable compensation but in 2012 the Courts made a significant ruling where they adjusted a business owners allocation between salary and net income in a case known as Watson v. Commissioner, 668 F.3d 1008 (8th Cir, 2012).
In Watson, the owner/employee Watson was a CPA and took $24,000 of salary a year and about $190,000 of annual net income. The IRS challenged the allocation of $24,000 of salary as being unreasonably too low. Watson lost in the District Court and appealed to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals who re-characterized Watson’s income to $93,000 of salary and about $120,000 of net income. The case is an important one for properly understanding the factors that should be considered in all businesses when determining how much income a business owner can claim as net income instead of salary. Here are some of those factors.
Factors Determining Net Income
Professional services businesses should take a larger portion of salary to net income than those in non-professional services: If the business is a professional services business (e.g. physician, dentist, lawyer, consultant, real estate broker, contractor, etc.) the IRS will more carefully scrutinize the services provided by business owners because the business provides a personal service.
Full-time working business owners should take a larger portion of salary to net income than part-time working business owners: If the business owner is involved full time in the business, more salary will be required. If the business owner’s involvement is part time or if they are involved in other businesses, a much lower salary can be justified.
Don’t take a salary that is below the salary paid to lower level employees in the business: In the Watson case the Court determined that a salary for Watson of $24,000 was not reasonable as new accountants salaries at his office were more than this.
Take a salary that is around the industry average for a person of similar experience in your industry: In the Watson case the Court scrutinized the experience and training of Watson and determined that a salary of $24,000 was not reasonable as accountants with similar experience and training in the industry were paid at least $70,000.
In summary, the salary/net income split is a legitimate tax planning technique for business owners but it is not one in which a business owner making over $200,000 a year can justify taking about 10% of income as salary (as was the case in Watson). The Court disallowed the 10% salary level but did allow him to take about 43% of his income as salary (and almost 60% as net income). This still resulted in some excellent tax savings.
As a general rule, we recommend that business owners take at least 1/3 of their income as salary and pay self employment tax on those amounts. Many other factors should be considered, such as those outlined above, and every business has a unique situation. The good news is that taking a large portion of income from a business as net income as opposed to salary is alive and valid and there are plenty of taxes to be saved each year by using this strategy. A business owner just can’t get too aggressive and take salary levels that are grossly below what people with similar experience in the industry are paid.
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"Mat is an excellent attorney, well versed in the Self-Directed IRA market...His ability to distill the complexities of the Self-Directed IRA so that the average person can understand them, and ensure that they don't get "tripped up" is second to none.
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Mat’s book is the most practical and comprehensive self directed IRA guide in our industry. Reading this handbook should be the first step for any alternative asset investor, investment sponsor, or trusted advisor that seeks to become informed about how to maximize the value of IRAs.