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Top 10 Self-Directed IRA Myths Debunked

Thursday, January 17, 2008

There is a lot of confusion over self-directed IRAs and what is and is not possible. In this article we will disprove some of the more common self-directed IRA myths.

1) Purchasing anything other than CDs, stocks, mutual funds or annuities is illegal in an IRA

FALSE. The only prohibitions contained in the Internal Revenue Code for IRAs are investments in life insurance contracts and in "collectibles," which are defined to include any work of art, any rug or antique, any metal or gem (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, platinum or palladium bullion), any stamp or coin (with certain exceptions for gold, silver, or platinum coins issued by the United States or under the laws of any State), any alcoholic beverage, or any other tangible personal property specified by the Secretary of the Treasury (no other property has been specified as of this date).

Since there are so few restrictions contained in the law, almost anything else which can be documented can be purchased in your IRA. A "self-directed" IRA allows any investment not expressly prohibited by law. Common investment choices include real estate, both domestic and foreign, options, secured and unsecured notes, including first and second liens against real estate, C corporation stock, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and a whole lot more.

2) Only Roth IRAs can be self-directed.

FALSE. Because of the power of tax-free wealth accumulation in a self-directed Roth IRA, many articles are written on how to use a Roth IRA to invest in non-traditional investments. As a result, it is a surprisingly common misconception that a Roth IRA is the only account which can be self-directed.

In fact, there are seven different types of accounts which can be self-directed. They are the 1) Roth IRA, 2) the Traditional IRA, 3) the SEP IRA, 4) the SIMPLE IRA, 5) the Individual 401(k), including the Roth 401(k), 6) the Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA, formerly known as the Education IRA), and 7) the Health Savings Account (HSA). Not only can all of these accounts invest in non-traditional investments (as indicated in Myth 1), but they can be combined together to purchase a single investment.

3) I don't qualify for a self-directed Roth or Traditional IRA because I am covered by a retirement plan at work or because I make too much money.

FALSE. Almost anyone can have a self-directed account of some type! Although there are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA (in 2008 the income limits are $169,000 for a married couple filing jointly and $116,000 for a single person or head of household), having a plan at work does not affect your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA. There is no age limit either. With a Traditional IRA, you or your spouse having a retirement plan at work does affect the deductibility of your contribution, but anyone with earned income who is under age 70 1/2 can contribute to a Traditional IRA.

There are no upper-income limits for contributing to a Traditional IRA. Also, a Traditional IRA can receive funds from a prior employer's 401(k) or other qualified plan. Additionally, you may be able to contribute to a Coverdell ESA for your children or grandchildren, nieces and nephews. If you have the right type of health insurance, called a High Deductible Health Plan, you can contribute to an HSA regardless of your income level. With an HSA, you may deduct your contributions to the account and qualified distributions are tax-free forever! It's the best of both worlds. All of this is in addition to any retirement plan you have at your job or for your self-employed business.

4) I can't have a self-directed 401(k) plan for my business because I am self-employed and file a Schedule C for my income.

FALSE. You can have a self-directed SEP IRA, a SIMPLE IRA or a 401(k) plan even if you are self-employed and file your income on Schedule C of your personal tax return. With a SEP IRA, you can contribute up to 20% of your net Schedule C income (or 25% of your wages from an employer), up to a maximum of $46,000 for 2008. With the SIMPLE IRA, you can defer up to the first $10,500 of your income, plus an additional $2,500 of your income if you are age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute an additional 3% of your income as an employer contribution.

Beginning in 2002 even self-employed persons are entitled to have their own 401(k) plan. Better yet, in 2006 the Roth 401(k) was added, allowing even high income earners to contribute after tax dollars into an account where qualified distributions are tax free forever! With an Individual 401(k) you can defer up to $15,500 of your earnings, plus an additional $5,000 if you reach age 50 by the end of the year, plus you can contribute up to an additional $30,500 based on up to 20% of your net Schedule C income for 2008 (or 25% of your wages from an employer). This means that a 50-plus-year-old self-employed person can contribute up to $51,000 for 2008!

5) Because I have a small IRA and can only contribute $4,000, it's not worth having a self-directed IRA.

FALSE. Even small balance accounts can participate in non-traditional investing. Small balance accounts can be co-invested with larger accounts owned by you or even other people. For example, one recent hard money loan we funded had 10 different accounts participating. The smallest account to participate was for only $1,827.00!

There are at least 4 ways you can participate in real estate investment even with a small IRA. First, you can wholesale property. You simply put the contract in the name of your IRA instead of your name. The earnest money comes from the IRA. When you assign the contract, the assignment fee goes back into your IRA. If using a Roth IRA, this profit is tax-free forever!

Second, you can purchase an option on real estate, which then can be either exercised, assigned to a third party, or canceled for a fee. Third, you can purchase property in your IRA subject to existing financing or with a non-recourse loan from a bank, a hard money lender, a financial friend or a motivated seller. Profits from debt-financed property in your IRA may incur unrelated business income tax (UBIT), however. Finally, as mentioned above, your IRA can be a partner with other IRA or non-IRA investors.

6) If I want to purchase non-traditional investments in an IRA, I must first establish an LLC which will be owned by my IRA.

False. A very popular idea in the marketplace right now is that you can invest your IRA in an LLC where you (the IRA owner) are the manager of the LLC. Effectively you have "checkbook control" of your IRA funds. Providers generally charge thousands of dollars to set up these LLCs and sometimes mislead people into thinking that this is necessary to invest in real estate or other non-traditional investments. This is simply not true. Not only can an IRA hold title to real estate and other non-traditional investments directly with companies, but having "checkbook control" of your IRA funds through an LLC can lead to many traps for the unwary. Far from protecting your IRA from the prohibited transaction rules, these setups may in fact lead to an inadvertent prohibited transaction, which may cause your IRA to be distributed to you, sometimes with substantial penalties.

This is not to say that there are not times when having your IRA make an investment through an LLC is a good idea, especially for asset protection purposes. Nonetheless, you must educate yourself completely as to the rules before deciding on this route. Having a "checkbook control" IRA-owned LLC is kind of like skydiving without a parachute - it may be fun on the way down, but eventually you are likely to go SPLAT!

7) I can borrow money from my IRA to purchase a vacation home for myself.

FALSE. Although the Internal Revenue Code lists very few investment restrictions, certain transactions (as opposed to investments) are considered to be prohibited. If your IRA enters into a prohibited transaction, there are severe consequences, so it is important to understand what constitutes a prohibited transaction.

Essentially, the prohibited transaction rules were made to discourage disqualified persons from dealing with the assets of the plan in a self-dealing manner, either directly or indirectly. The assets of a plan are to be invested in a manner which benefits the plan itself and not the IRA owner (other than as a beneficiary of the IRA) or any other disqualified person. Investment transactions are supposed to be on an arms-length basis.

As a result of these legal restrictions, a loan from your IRA or staying at a vacation home owned by your IRA, even if fair market rates are paid for interest or rent, would be prohibited.

8) With a self-directed IRA, I can borrow my IRA funds to purchase real estate and then put all the profits back into the IRA.

FALSE. When real estate or any other asset is purchased within a self-directed IRA, the money never leaves the IRA at all. Instead, the IRA exchanges cash for the asset, in the same way that an IRA at a brokerage house exchanges cash for shares of stock or a mutual fund. Therefore, the asset must be held in the name of the IRA. For example, if Ira N. Vestor were to purchase an investment house in his self-directed IRA, the title would be held as "Entrust Retirement Services, Inc. FBO Ira N. Vestor IRA #12345-11." Since the IRA owns the asset, all expenses associated with the asset must be paid by the IRA and all profit resulting from that investment belongs to the IRA, including rents received and gains from the sale of the asset.

9) If my IRA buys real estate, it must pay all cash for the property. An IRA cannot buy real estate with debt.

FALSE. An IRA can own debt-financed property, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership. Any debt must be non-recourse to the IRA and to any disqualified person. An IRA may have to pay Unrelated Debt Financed Income Tax (UDFIT) on its profits from debt-financed property. In general, taxes must be paid on profits from an IRA-owned property that is debt-financed, including profits from the sale or disposition of the property, in the same proportion that it had debt. For a simplified example, if the IRA puts 50% down, then 50% of its profits above $1,000 will be taxable. Although at first this sounds terrible, in fact leverage can be an extremely powerful tool in building your retirement wealth. The same leverage principle applies inside or outside of your IRA - you can do more with debt-financing than you can without it. One client was able to build her Roth IRA from $3,000 to over $33,000 in less than 4 months even after paying the taxes due by taking over a property subject to a debt and selling the property to another investor!

10) An IRA cannot own a business.

FALSE. A self-directed IRA is an amazingly flexible wealth-building tool and can own almost anything, including a business. However, due to the conflict of interest rules you cannot work for a business owned by your IRA and get paid. Some companies have a plan to start a C corporation, adopt a 401(k) plan, roll an IRA into the 401(k) plan and purchase employer securities to effectively start a new business, but this is not a direct investment by the IRA in the business and is fairly expensive to set up. Also, if your IRA owns an interest in a business, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxed entity such as an LLC or partnership, the IRA may owe Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) on its profits from the business. A solution to this problem may be to have the business owned by a C corporation or another taxable entity.

H. Quincy Long is a Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP) and an attorney. He is also President of Entrust Retirement Services, Inc., with offices in Houston and San Antonio, Texas. He may be reached by email at QLong [at] EntrustTexas [dot] com. Nothing in this article is intended as tax, legal or investment advice.


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