Six Widely Held Untruths About Self Directed IRAs

By H. Quincy Long for Self-Directed Source Blog

There is a lot of confusion over self-directed IRAs and what is and is not possible. In this article we will discuss six of the biggest self-directed IRA myths.

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

FALSE! According to the Internal Revenue Code for IRAs, the only disallowed investments are life insurance contracts and in “collectibles”, which are defined by the IRS 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 U.S. 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).

With 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 non-traditional 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, precious metals, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and a whole lot more.

2) Only Roth IRAs can be self-directed.

False. Because of the superior 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 that can be self-directed. In fact, there are seven different types of accounts that can be self-directed. They include 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 any of these accounts invest in non-traditional investments as indicated in Myth 1, but they can be combined 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 2011 the income limits are $179,000 for a married couple filing jointly and $122,000 for a single person or head of household), having a plan at work does not affect your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA, and there is no Roth IRA 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, nephews or even my children, if you are so inclined. 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) 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 such as Entrust Retirement Services, Inc., 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!

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 accounts can benefit from non-traditional investing. Small accounts can be co-invested with larger accounts owned by you or even others. 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.  Simply put the contract in the name of your IRA instead of your name, and have the earnest money come from the IRA. Then, when you assign the contract, the assignment fee goes back into your IRA. 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 acquire property in your IRA subject to existing financing or using a non-recourse loan from a bank, a hard moneylender, a financial friend or a motivated seller. Realize, however, that profits from debt-financed property in your IRA may incur unrelated business income tax (UBIT). Lastly, as mentioned above, your IRA can partner with other IRA or non-IRA investors.

6) An IRA cannot own a business.

False. A self-directed IRA is an astoundingly flexible wealth building tool, and it 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.