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?
We’ve been advising clients for over a decade on self-directed IRAs and solo 401(k)s and what we’ve learned is that there is no universal answer to the question. Instead, you need to learn what is best based on your personal situation and investment objectives. Do you even qualify for a solo(k)? What investments do you plan to make and does one account type make a difference for your investments? The good news is that either way you go, we can help with a self-directed IRA at Directed IRA, where we are a licensed trust company and can serve as custodian of your IRA. Or, we can set-up a solo(k) at KKOS Lawyers using our pre-approved plan documents.
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.
$6,000 max annual contribution. Additional $1,000 if over 50.
$56,000 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 pre-approved 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 $995 with atty consultation or $495 for the plan only.
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. Of course we recommend our company, www.directedira.com.
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 is 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 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.
Mat has been at the forefront of the self-directed IRA industry since 2006. He is the CEO of Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company where they handle all types of self-directed accounts (IRAs, Roth IRAs, HSAs, Coverdell ESA, Solo Ks, and Custodial Accounts) which are typically invested into real estate, private company/private equity, IRA/LLCs, notes, precious metals, and cryptocurrency. Mat is also a partner at KKOS Lawyers and serves clients nationwide from its Phoenix, AZ office.
He is published regularly on retirement, tax, and business topics, and is a VIP Contributor at Entrepreneur.com. Mat is the best-selling author of the most widely used book in the self-directed IRA industry, The Self-Directed IRA Handbook: An Authoritative Guide for Self-Directed Retirement Plan Investors and Their Advisors.
Solo 401(k)s have become a popular retirement plan option for self-employed persons. Unfortunately, many plans are not properly maintained and are at the risk of significant penalty and/or plan termination. If you have a Solo 401(k), you need to ensure that the 401(k) is being properly maintained. Here’s a quick checklist to make sure your plan is on track:
1. Does your Solo 401(k) need to file a Form 5500-EZ?
There are two primary situations where you are required to file a Form 5500 for your Solo 401(k).
If your Solo 401(k) has more than $250,000 in assets, and
If the Solo 401(k) plan is terminated (regardless of total asset amount).
If either of these instances occur, then the Solo 401(k) must file a Form 5500 to the IRS annually. Form 5500 is due by July 31st of each year for the prior year’s plan activity. Solo 401(k)s can file what is known as a 5500-EZ. The 5500-EZ is a shortened version of the standard Form 5500. Unfortunately, the Form 5500-EZ cannot be filed electronically and must be filed by mail. Solo 401(k) owners have the option of filing a Form 5500-SF online through the DOL. The online filing is preferred as it can immediately be filed and tracked by the plan owner. In fact, if you qualify to file a 5500-EZ, the IRS and DOL allow you file the Form 5500-SF online, but you can skip certain questions so that you only end up answering what is on the shorter Form 5500-EZ. We regularly file Form 5500-EZs and 5500-SFs for Solo K clients in the law firm for only $250.
2. Is the plan up-to-date?
The IRS requires all 401(k) plans, including Solo 401(k)s, to be amended at least once every six years. If you’ve had your plan over six years and you’ve never restated the plan or adopted amendments, it is not compliant and upon audit, you will be subject to fines and possible plan termination (IRS Rev Proc 2016-17). If your plan is out of date, your best option is to restate your plan to make sure it is compliant with current law. On average, most plan documents we see update every two to three years as the laws effecting the plan documents change. We’ve had two different plan amendments to our IRS pre-approved plan in the past six years.
3. Are you properly tracking your plan funds?
Your Solo 401(k) plan funds need to be properly tracked and they must identify the different sources for each participant. For example, if two spouses are contributing Roth 401(k) employee contributions and the company is matching employer Traditional 401(k) dollars, then you need to be tracking these four different sources of funds, and you must have a written accounting record documenting these different fund types.
4. Plan funds must be separated by source and participant
You must maintain separate bank accounts for the different participants’ funds (e.g. spouses or partners in a Solo K), and you must also separate traditional funds from Roth funds. In addition, you must properly track and document investments from these different fund sources so that returns to the Solo 401(k) are properly credited to the proper investing account.
5. Are you properly reporting contributions and rollovers?
If you’ve rolled over funds from an IRA or other 401(k) to your Solo 401(k), you should have indicated that the rollover or transfer was to another retirement account. So long as you did this, the company rolling over the funds will issue a 1099-R to you, but will include a code on the 1099-R (code G in box 7) indicating that the funds were transferred to another retirement account, and that the amount on the 1099-R is not subject to tax. If you’re making new contributions to the Solo 401(k), those contributions should be properly tracked on your personal and business tax returns. If you are an S-Corp, your employee contributions should show up on your W-2, and your employer contributions will show up on line 17 of your 1120S S-Corp tax return. If you are a Sole Prop, your contributions will typically show up on your personal 1040 on line 28.
Make sure you are complying with these rules on an annual basis. If your Solo 401(k) retirement plan is out of compliance, get with your attorney or CPA immediately to make sure it is up-to-date. Failure to properly file Form 5500 runs at a rate of $25 a day up to a maximum penalty of $15,000 per return not properly filed. You don’t want to get stung for failing to file a relatively simple form. The good news is there are correction programs offered for some plan failures. But, don’t get sloppy, or you’ll run the risk losing your hard-earned retirement dollars.
As 2018 comes to an end, it is critical that Solo 401(k) owners understand when and how to make their 2018 contributions. There are three important deadlines you must know if you have a Solo 401(k) or if you plan to set one up still in 2018. A Solo 401(k) is a retirement plan for small business owners or self-employed persons who have no other full time employees other than owners and spouses. It’s a great plan that can be self-directed into real estate, LLCs, or other alternative investments, and allows the owner/participants to contribute up to $55,000 per year (far faster than any IRA).
New Solo 401(k) Set-Up Deadline is 12/31/18
First, in order to make 2018 contributions, the Solo 401(k) must be adopted by your business by December 31st, 2018. If you haven’t already adopted a Solo 401(k) plan, you should start now so that documents can be completed and filed in time. If the 401(k) is established on January 1st, 2019 or later, you cannot make 2018 contributions.
2018 Contributions Can Be Made in 2019
Both employee and employer contributions can be made up until the company’s tax return deadline including extensions. If you have a sole proprietorship (e.g. single member LLC or schedule C income) or C-Corporation, then the company tax return deadline is April 15th, 2018. If you have an S-Corporation or partnership LLC, the deadline for 2018 contributions is March 15th, 2019. Both of these deadlines (March 15th and April 15th) to make 2018 contributions may be extended another six months by filing an extension. This a huge benefit for those that want to make 2018 contributions, but won’t have funds until later in the year to do so.
W-2’s Force You to Plan Now
While employee and employer contributions may be extended until the company tax return deadline, you will typically need to file a W-2 for your wages (e.g. an S-Corporation) by January 31st, 2019. The W-2 will include your wage income and any deduction for employee retirement plan contributions will be reduced on the W-2 in box 12. As a result, you should make your employee contributions (up to $18,500 for 2018) by January 31st, 2019 or you should at least determine the amount you plan to contribute so that you can file an accurate W-2 by January 31st, 2019. If you don’t have all or a portion of the funds you plan to contribute available by the time your W-2 is due, you can set the amount you plan to contribute to the 401(k) as an employee contribution, and will then need to make said contribution by the tax return deadline (including extensions).
Now let’s bring this all together and take an example to outline how this may work. Sally is 44 years old and has an S-Corporation as an online business. She is the only owner and only employee, and had a Solo 401(k) established in 2018. She has $120,000 in net income for the year and will have taken $50,000 of that in wage income that will go on her W-2 for the year. That will leave $70,000 of profit that is taxable to her and that will come through to her personally via a K-1 from the business. Sally has not yet made any 2018 401(k) contributions, but plans to do so in order to reduce her taxable income for the year and to build a nest egg for retirement. If she decided to max-out her 2018 Solo 401(k) contributions, it would look like this:
Employee Contributions – The 2018 maximum employee contribution is $18,500. This is dollar for dollar on wages so you can contribute $18,500 as long as you have made $18,500. Since Sally has $50,000 in wages from her S-Corp, she can easily make an $18,500 employee contribution. Let’s say that Sally doesn’t have the $18,500 to contribute, but will have it available by the tax return deadline (including extensions). What Sally will need to do is let her accountant or payroll company know what she plans to contribute as an employee contribution so that they can properly report the contributions on her payroll and W-2 reporting. By making an $18,500 employee contribution, Sally has reduced her taxable income on her W-2 from $50,000 to $31,500. At even a 20% tax bracket for federal taxes and a 5% tax bracket for state taxes that comes to a tax savings of $4,625.
Employer Contributions – The 2018 maximum employer contribution is 25% of wage compensation. For Sally: Up to a maximum employer contribution of $36,500. Since Sally has taken a W-2 wage of $50,000, the company may make an employer contribution of $12,500 (25% of $50,000). This contribution is an expense to the company and is included as an employee benefit expense on the S-Corporation’s tax return (form 1120S). In the stated example, Sally would’ve had $70,000 in net profit/income from the company before making the Solo 401(k) contribution. After making the employer matching contribution of $12,500 in this example, Sally would then only receive a K-1 and net income/profit from the S-Corporation of $57,500. Again, if she were in a 20% federal and a 5% state tax bracket, that would create a tax savings of $3,125. This employer contribution would need to be made by March 15th, 2019 (the company return deadline) or by September 15th, 2019 if the company were to file an extension.
In the end, Sally would have contributed and saved $31,000 for retirement ($18,500 employee contribution, $12,500 employer contribution). And she would have saved approximately $7,750 in federal and state taxes. That’s a win-win.
Keep in mind, you need to start making plans now and you want to begin coordinating with your accountant or payroll company as your yearly wage information on your W-2 (self employment income for sole props) is critical in determining what you can contribute to your Solo 401(k). Also, make certain you have the plan set-up in 2018 if you plan to make 2018 contributions. While IRAs can be established until April 15th, 2019 for 2018 contributions, a Solo K must be established by December 31st, 2018. Don’t get the two confused, and make sure you’ve got a plan for your specific business.
Note: If you’ve got a single member LLC taxed as a sole proprietorship, or just an old-fashioned sole prop, or even or an LLC taxed as a partnership (where you don’t have a W-2), then please refer to our prior article here on how to calculate your Solo K contributions as they differ slightly from the s-corp example above.
Self-directed 401(k) owners, companies in the industry, and many professionals have been confused on what rules, if any, govern when buying precious metals with a self-directed 401(k). There is a code section in IRC § 408(m) that outlines what metals can be owned by a self-directed IRA and how they should be stored. I have an article that summarizes it here. However, this section of the code is written for IRAs, and many have questioned whether it should be applied to 401(k) accounts as well. The short answer is, “Yes,” and here are two reasons why:
I. Most Solo K plan documents adopt IRC § 408(m)
Most 401(k) plans, including Solo 401(k)s, adopt IRC § 408(m), which specify which precious metals your Solo K may own, and provides a storage requirement. Since the plan documents restrict what precious metals your 401(k) may own, all accounts under the plan must follow the plan rules. Many may wonder, “Well can’t I just amend my 401(k) plan?”
Not exactly. Most Solo K plans are volume-submitter IRS pre-approved plans and take years to create and get approved with the IRS. A change requires approval from the provider of those plans, and they’d have to change it for all of their customers. This isn’t likely to occur, especially given second point below.
II. The IRS wants your Solo K to follow the IRA “Precious Metals” rule
The IRS has issued guidance to 401(k) plans that are individually directed and has stated that the rules of IRC § 408(m) should be followed when a 401(k) account purchases precious metals. To view the IRS analysis, check out their resource page here.
Consequently, Solo 401(k) owners buying precious metals should follow the IRA rules for precious metals and should only buy qualifying gold, silver, platinum, or palladium, and should make sure that such metals are stored with a third party qualifying institution (bank, credit union, or trust company).
Do you have a Solo 401(k)? Have you been filing form 5500-EZ each year for the Solo 401(k)? Are you aware that there is a penalty up to $15,000 per year for failure to file? While some Solo 401(k)s are exempt from the 5500-EZ filing requirement, we have ran across many Solo 401(k) owners who should have filed, but have failed to do so.
The return a Solo 401(k) files is called a 5500-EZ, and it is due annually on July 31st for the prior year. If you have a Solo 401(k) and you have no idea what I’m talking about, stay calm, but read on.
Benefits of Solo 401(k)s
One of the benefits of a Solo 401(k) is the ease of administration and control, because you can be the 401(k) trustee and administrator. However, as the 401(k) administrator and trustee, it is your own responsibility to make the appropriate tax filings. This would include filing any required tax returns for the 401(k). Solo 401(k)s with less than $250,000 in assets are exempt and do not need to file a 5500-EZ. All plans with assets valued at $250,000 or greater must file a form 5500-EZ annually. A tax return is also required for a Solo 401(k) when the plan is terminated, even if the plan assets are below $250,000. Recently, more and more Solo 401(k) owners have contacted us because they set up their Solo 401(k) online or with some other company, and were never made aware that they are supposed to file a 5500-EZ when their plan assets exceed $250,000. Some of these individuals have multiple years in which they should have filed the 5500-EZ, but failed to do so. The penalties for failing to file a 5500-EZ when it is required can be quite severe, with fees and penalties as high as $15,000 for each late return plus interest.
Failure to File Relief
Fortunately, the IRS has a temporary pilot program that provides automatic relief from IRS Late filing penalties on past due 5500-EZ filings. The penalty relief began as a temporary program in 2014 and was made permanent via Rev Proc 2015-32.
In order to qualify for this program, your Solo 401(k) plan must not have received a CP 283 Notice for any past due 5500-EZ filings, and the only participants of your Solo 401(k) plan can be you and your spouse, and your business partner(s) and their spouse. There is a $500 fee due for each delinquent return up to a total of $1,500 or three years. This program is available to all Solo 401(k) plans, regardless of whether it is a self-directed plan.
The IRS has provided details via Rev Proc 15-32. In order to qualify and receive a waiver of penalties under the program, you must follow the program exactly. In short, you must do all of the following:
File all delinquent returns using the IRS form in the year the filing was due. This must be via paper form.
Mark on the top margin of the first page, “Delinquent Return Submitted under Rev. Proc. 2015-32.”
In sum, if you have a Solo 401(k) plan that should have filed a 5500-EZ for prior years, then you should take advantage of this program, which will save you thousands of dollars in penalties and fees. If you have any questions about this program or would like assistance with submitting your late 5500-EZ filings under this program, please contact our law firm as we are assisting clients with current and past due 5500-EZ filings for their Solo 401(k)s.
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Tom W. Anderson
The "Self Directed IRA Handbook" by attorney Mat Sorensen is the most comprehensive book ever written about one of the best investment and retirement savings tools ever created: the Self-Directed IRA. Mat has performed the impossible by effectively delivering complex information in an easily understandable manner for the layperson, while providing the necessary legal basis to suit the professional. Mat's book is a "must read" for investors, attorneys, CPAs, and other professionals and other interested individuals wanting to learn about all there is to know about Self-Directed IRAs.
Mat's books is a great reference guide for self-directed IRA investing – Best I’ve seen in 30 years of being in the business.
CEO, Polycomp Trust Company
Mat's book is an excellent resource for self directed IRA owners and their advisors. It is the first of its kind in our industry. Mat has truly written an “Authoritative Guide” for self directed IRAs.
President, Polycomp Trust Company
Mark J. Kohler
Mat is truly an expert on self directed IRAs, and his book is the one book that every self directed IRA investor should read.
Mark J. Kohler
CPA, Attorney, Author
I was referred to Matt for help in setting up an IRA owned LLC. Matt and his team did an incredible job completing the work in a few short days. The process was professional, efficient and cost effective. I continue to rely on Matt for guidance running the LLC and related real estate matters. Not only is Matt a good lawyer, he runs a great office. It is easy for me to recommend Matt and his team.
We have used Matt for many legal matters and he always comes through with shining colors. I highly recommend Matt for any legal or tax matter.
Real Estate Broker & Investor
Mathew is the legal partner for the majority of my clients. Matthew provides solid legal advice, precise strategic planning, appropriate corporate structure development, and is readily available to consult with his clients on all legal and business manners. Matthew is well respected and has an extremely large network in the successful real estate investor world. Matthew is reliable, professional and an all around great partner to have on your side
I have retained Mathew Sorensen several times for multiple real estate deals and have been very pleased with his efforts and work product and will continue to use him in the future.
Real Estate Investor
My wife and I recently sought Mat's help with estate planning and couldn't have been more satisfied. Mat's professionalism, honesty, creativity and attention to detail is second to none. What impresses me the most about Mat can be summed up as "diverse". Mat's vast knowledge and experience in a plethora of differing areas of the law is astounding. I highly recommend Mat to my clients and friends seeking legal help.
Mat is a highly qualified...lawyer specializing in real estate. He's personable and professional, knows his stuff and is a nice guy. It doesn't get any better than that. I really liked the way he explained everything to me at my level so I got it. He also advised the best way for me to proceed with my RE investments. He handled my case in a timely manner with high integrity.
I have had the opportunity to engage Mat's services on many occasions and have found him to be diligent and reliable. He has always been committed to delivering high-quality work and is very professional. He is well-liked and respected by his peers. He has my most sincere recommendation.
Mathew Sorensen is a great resource and I use him consistently for real estate law questions. He is a wealth of information and will always give you a great knowledge base. I have been using KKOS for a while now and am very impressed and happy with their services.
CPA, Real Estate Investor
Kenneth P. Child
[Mat] is completely devoted to his clients and continually strives to stay abreast of changes and updates in the law. Mat is an unbelievably hard worker and...I don't hesitate to recommend Mat's services to anyone as I know he will take care of them and give them simple, concise, and straightforward solutions to any legal issue they may be facing.
I am a partner in a law firm in Chicago and I have worked with Mat on my personal real estate and business ventures. Mat has given me practical and wise advice which has helped me make profitable decisions. I highly recommend Mat.
Attorney & Real Estate Investor
Mathew is an excellent attorney, well versed in the Self-Directed IRA market…His ability to distil 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. Anyone interested in this Self-Directed IRA Market would do well to connect with Mathew and learn from the best.
"Mat's book is an excellent resource for self directed IRA owners and their advisors. It is the first of its kind in our industry. Mat has truly written an“Authoritative Guide” for self directed IRAs."
"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.
"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."
"The Self Directed IRA Handbook by attorney Mat Sorensen is the most comprehensive book ever written about one of the best investment and retirement savings tools ever created: the Self-Directed IRA."
Founder and Retired CEO, PENSCO Trust Company
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.