The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued their most recent report on self-directed IRAs and concluded that the IRS and DOL should do more to collaborate on prohibited transactions in IRAs. The report and the GAO’s work was an excellent analysis of some of the issues facing IRA owners.
There were two significant sections in the report for Self-Directed IRA accounts: Prohibited transaction exemption applications and IRAs with large balances likely being self-directed.
Prohibited Transaction Exemption Applications
An IRA owner may request an exemption for a prohibited transaction by making a formal written request to the DOL. While the IRS enforces the prohibited transaction rules, the DOL has interpretative authority and is the agency who can grant exemptions. An exemption must be obtained in advance of the transaction and takes on average one year to obtain.
A common prohibited transaction exemption request is one where the IRA owner owns real estate in an IRA which they would like to use personally. While the property could be distributed as an in-kind distribution there are tax consequences to such distribution. The DOL has granted this exemption request for IRA owners in the past and generally requires an appraisal to set the value and a broker/agent to effectuate the transaction.
The prohibited transaction exemption process is rarely utilized by IRA owners. The GAO noted that in the past 11 years only 48 prohibited transaction exemptions where granted for IRAs.
The biggest deterrent from my experience with clients is that it takes 6 months to 1 year to get approved and about $5,000 in legal fees to make the application and handle it to decision. Usually such long timelines are not something IRA owners are willing to wait on as circumstances change from one year to the next. The DOL does have some expedited prohibited transaction exemption procedures, known as EXPRO, that can be used when an account owner is seeking to rely on an exemption that has already been granted by the DOL to someone in a similar situation. Use of such procedures with IRA owners, which is already allowed but not readily known, could provide a better outcome as EXPRO applications are granted more quickly.
The GAO recommended that the IRS and DOL collaborate on prohibited transaction exemptions to better regulate and understand IRAs.
IRAs With Large Balances Likely Self-Directed
In their report, the GAO also noted some of their prior work on self-directed IRAs and stated the following:
“…IRA owners who have accumulated unusually large IRA balances likely have invested in unconventional assets like non-publicly traded shares of stock and partnership interests.”
While this is no news to self-directed IRA owners, it should be something of interest to policy makers and financial advisers who may view self-directed accounts with skepticism. If self-directed accounts have proven to get unusually high balances, wouldn’t we want more people to use them to do the same thing and to secure their retirement. The concept of self-directed IRAs is simple: Give more freedom and control, and let people invest in what they know. Let account owners decide and obtain the benefits (or burden) of their decisions with their money. Sure, there are risks but the best person to take risks is the person whose actual hard-earned money is on the line.
A recent article on Forbes by Bryan Ellis outlines the importance in making sure you understand self-directed IRA rules before you invest. Check out the excellent article and a quote from yours truly here. Also, Bryan has a significant amount of additional resources on his self-directed IRA website which you can access here.
Most self directed IRA owners know that their self directed IRA cannot conduct transactions with themselves or certain family members (e.g. spouse, kids, parents, etc.). Most self directed IRA owners also know that their self directed IRA cannot do business with a company they own or that their disqualified family members own 50% or more of. However, one of the most confusing areas of the prohibited transaction rules are the prohibited transaction rules which apply to business partners or officers, directors, and/or highly compensated employees of companies the IRA owner or family members are personally involved in. For example, what if I own a business with a partner? Can my IRA enter into a transaction with that business partner if we aren’t family? Well, it depends.
Disqualified Person Analysis
To analyze the rules you first need to determine whether the company in which the business partner (or officer, or director) is involved in is a company that is owned 50% or more by the IRA owner or their disqualified family members. IRC 4975 (e)(2)(E),(H), (I). So, for example, if my wife and I owned 60% of the business and our partner owned 40% of the business, then this company would be owned 50% or more by disqualified persons.
Once we know that the company is owned 50% or more by disqualified persons, we need to identify all of the officers, directors, highly compensated employees, and 10 % or more owners of that company. In sum, all of these persons are disqualified to the IRAs of the 50% or more owners. In the example above, since my business partner owned 40% of the company, he is a 10% or more owner and as a result he is a disqualified person to my IRA (since my wife and I own 50% or more of the company).
Let’s look at another example. Say that I am a 35% owner of a business with a few other partners who are not disqualified family members to me. Since I do not own 50% or more of this company, it doesn’t matter who the other partners, officers, or directors, are, as they are not disqualified to my IRA as part of this rule since my ownership (and that of my disqualified family members) is below 50%.
As a final example, let’s say that I own 70% of a company and that I have a partner who owns 5%. Under the rule, my partner or fellow shareholder does not have 10% or greater ownership and as a result they are not disqualified to my IRA. However, if that 5% owner was the President of my company then they would be a disqualified person.
These rules can be tough to understand when you read the code, but if you take the two step analysis you can easily determine what partners, officer, directors, or highly compensated employees are disqualified to your IRA.
Here’s also a quick summary of the rule from my book where I took the text of the tax code and put it into plain language.
Key Persons in Company Owned 50% or More by Disqualified Persons
An officer, director, or 10% or more shareholder, or highly compensated employee (earns 10% or more of the company’s wages) of a company owned by the IRA owner or other disqualified persons. IRC § 4975 (e)(2)(H).
Before investing with someone who is an officer, director, highly compensated employee, or a shareholder/owner in a company you are involved in, please consult these rules and where you are un-clear, seek the advice of competent counsel.
The prohibited transaction rules applicable to self directed IRAs prohibit not what your IRA can invest into but WHO your IRA may engage in a transaction with. For example, the prohibited transaction rules restrict my IRA from buying a rental property from my father. This is not because rental properties are prohibited to my IRA but because my father is prohibited by law from transaction with my IRA. My self directed IRA could buy a rental property from a third party seller whom I have no family or other business relationship with since there is nothing wrong in buying the rental property the question is just who am I buying it from. Congress decided to restrict investments with certain persons who could potentially collude with the IRA owner to unfairly avoid taxes. As a result, transactions with certain family members and business partners of an IRA owner are prohibited. The consequence for engaging in a prohibited transaction can be drastic (e.g. no longer have an IRA, penalties and taxes on distribution) so IRA owners must avoid them in all situations.
The prohibited transaction rules therefore provide the greatest restriction on using self directed IRA funds and must be understood by self directed IRA investors. These rules are found in IRC 4975 and state that a prohibited transaction occurs when an IRA engages in a transaction (e.g. buy, sell) with a disqualified person. The question immediately arises, who is a disqualified person to my IRA?
Categories of Persons Disqualified to Your SDIRA
There are essentially four categories of disqualified persons to your IRA and they are as follows.
- IRA Owner. The IRA owner is disqualified to his/her own IRA as the fiduciary making decisions for the account. IRC 4975(e)(2)(A), Harris v. Commissioner, 76 T.C.M. 748 (U.S. Tax Ct. 1994).
- Certain Family Members. Disqualified family members include the IRA owner’s spouse, children, spouses of children, grandchildren and their spouses, and the IRA owner’s parents and grandparents. Family member who are NOT disqualified persons are siblings (e.g. brothers and sisters), aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and parent in-laws (e.g. spouses parents). IRC 4975 (e)(2)(F), IRC 4975 (e)(6).
- Company Owned 50% or More by IRA Owner or Certain Family Members. Any Company that is owned 50% or more by the IRA Owner or Certain Family Members outlined above are disqualified to the IRA. For example, an LLC owned 30% by the IRA owner, 30% by the IRA owner’s spouse, and 40% by an un-related partner is a disqualified company to the IRA (owned 50% or more by disqualified persons) and any transaction between the IRA and the company would be a prohibited transaction. IRC 4975 (e)(2)(G).
- Key Persons in Company Owned 50% or More by IRA Owner or Certain Family Members. Any person who is a 10% or more owner of a company owned 50% or more by disqualified persons (e.g. number 3 above) or any person who is an officer, director, or manager of a disqualified company (owned 50% or more by disqualified persons) is also disqualified. For example, if my wife and I own 60% of a company and if Julie is an officer of that company then Julies is a disqualified person to my IRA. Additionally, if Julie was a 15% or more owner of the company she would also be prohibited to my IRA.
When you are dealing with unrelated persons (not related as family or as business partners) the prohibited transaction rules do not need to be analyzed but once family members or business partners are involved in any part of the transaction, the IRA owner must ensure that the prohibited transaction rules are not being violated.
Can my IRA own substantially all of the ownership of an LLC? Can my IRA/LLC pay a salary to me for serving as the manager of the IRA/LLC? Last week the U.S. Tax Court issued an opinion in the case of Ellis v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo 2013-245 and answered both of these questions.
In Ellis, the Tax Court resolved two questions posed by the IRS. First, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when his IRA acquired 98% of the membership interest in CST, LLC? And second, did Mr. Ellis engage in a prohibited transaction when CST, LLC (owned 98% by his IRA) paid him compensation for serving as the manager?
Analyzing Ellis v. Commissioner
As to the first question, the Tax Court held that Mr. Ellis’ IRA did NOT engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquired 98% of the ownership of a newly established LLC. The other 2% was owned by an un-related person who was not part of the case and whose ownership did not have an impact on the decision. The IRS contended that a prohibited transaction occurred when the IRA bought ownership of CST, LLC. The Court disagreed, however, and held that the IRA’s purchase of the initial membership interest of the LLC was NOT a prohibited transaction. The Court stated that the IRA’s purchase of membership interest in a new LLC is analogous to prior holdings of the Court whereby the Court held that an IRA does not engage in a prohibited transaction when it acquires the initial shares of a new corporation. Similarly, the court held that a new LLC is not a disqualified person to an IRA under the prohibited transaction rules and as a result an IRA may invest and own the ownership of the LLC. IRC § 4975(e)(2)(G), Swanson V. Commissioner, 106 T.C. 76, 88 (1996). Consequently, the Court’s ruling means that it is NOT a prohibited transaction for an IRA to acquire substantially all or all of the ownership of a new LLC.
As to the second question, the Tax Court held that it was a prohibited transaction for the LLC owned substantially by Mr. Ellis’ IRA to pay compensation to Mr. Ellis personally. The court reasoned that, “In causing CST [the IRA/LLC] to pay him [IRA owner] compensation, Mr. Ellis engaged in the transfer of plan income or assets for his own benefit in violation of section 4975 (c)(1)(d).” This type of prohibited transaction is often times referred to as a self dealing prohibited transaction and occurs when the IRA owner personally benefits from his IRA’s investments. The Court looked to the operating agreement of the LLC which authorized payment to Mr. Ellis for serving as the general manager and also the actual records of the LLC which showed the payments to Mr. Ellis. When using an IRA/LLC, one of the many important clauses in the operating agreement is one which restricts compensation to the IRA owner or any other disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner’s spouse or kids). Also, the actual payment and transaction records of the IRA/LLC will be analyzed so it is important that both the LLC documents and the actual payment records do not allow for or result in payment from the IRA/LLC to disqualified person (e.g. IRA owner).
It is also important to note that the Tax Court rejected Mr. Ellis’ argument that the payments were exempt from the prohibited transaction rules under section 4975 (d)(10). Section (d)(10) provides an exemption to the prohibited transaction rules for payments from an IRA to a disqualified person [e.g. IRA owner] for services rendered to manage the IRA. The Tax Court rejected this argument stating that the payments from the IRA/LLC were not for management of the IRA but for management of the IRA/LLC and its business activities. In this case, the IRA owner was actively involved as the general manager of the IRA/LLC which LLC bought and sold cars. As a result, the Court held that the payments were not exempt and constituted a prohibited transaction.
I was happy to read this case and find the Court’s conclusions because it matches the same opinion and advice we have been giving clients regarding IRA/LLCs for nearly ten years: that a newly established LLC owned by an IRA does not constitute a prohibited transaction but the IRA/LLC cannot pay the IRA owner (or any other disqualified person) compensation for managing the IRA/LLC.