To Pay or Not to Pay – That is the Question Unrelated Business Income Tax in Retirement Plans

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes(Last Updated On: January 30, 2014)

Most people understand that an IRA is normally not a taxable trust and its income is not taxed until the income is distributed (or not at all, if it is a qualifying distribution from a Roth IRA). However, there are 2 circumstances when an IRA may owe tax on its income. First, if the IRA is engaged in an unrelated trade or business, either directly or indirectly through a non-taxable entity such as an LLC or a limited partnership, the IRA will owe tax on its share of Unrelated Business Income (UBI). Second. if the IRA owns, either directly or indirectly, property subject to debt, it will owe tax only on the portion of its income derived from the debt, which is sometimes referred to as Unrelated Debt Financed Income (UDFI).

I will refer to either tax as Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT) in this article.
From a financial planning perspective, the question becomes “Should I avoid doing something in my IRA which may incur UBIT?” Many people just say “Forget it!” when they learn a certain investment may subject the IRA to UBIT. Or worse yet, they ignore the issue and hope they won’t get caught. However, being afraid of UBIT is short sighted and ignores the opportunity it presents for building massive wealth in your retirement plan. Remember, making an investment which may subject the IRA to UBIT is not a prohibited transaction, it just means the IRA has to pay a tax. The best financial advice on UBIT is simple: “Don’t mess with the IRS!” If the IRA owes UBIT, make sure it is paid.
“But,” you object, “doesn’t this mean I am paying double taxation?” Unless your IRA is a Roth IRA, it is true that in these 2 circumstances the tax will be paid by the IRA and again by the IRA holder when the income is distributed. However, in my view this is the incorrect focus. Is the IRA glass 1/3 empty or 2/3 full? At least the IRS is a silent partner. The double taxation issue is no different when investing in stocks traded on the stock exchange, since corporations pay tax on income before issuing dividends to shareholders, and the value of the stock takes into account that the company must pay income taxes.
Two key questions arise when analyzing a “UBIT investment.” The first question to ask in UBIT analysis is “What tax would I pay if I did the same transaction outside of my IRA?” The only “penalty” is the amount of tax the IRA would pay above the amount that you would pay individually. If you make the investment personally, you not only will pay tax on the income from the investment, but also from the next investment, and the next one after that. At least within the IRA you have the choice of making investments with your proceeds which do not incur UBIT. A second question to ask is this: “Will my after UBIT return exceed what I could make on other IRA investments?” Why should you turn away from an investment in your IRA which will give you an incredible return even after paying the tax?
Let me give you one powerful example of how paying UBIT might make a lot of sense. One Quest client purchased a property in her Roth IRA subject to approximately $97,000 in delinquent taxes (this is the same as a mortgage for UBIT purposes). The owner was willing to walk away from the property for $75 just to get rid of the headache and the lawsuit pending against him by the taxing authorities. With closing costs the IRA spent around $3,000 to acquire the property. Only 4 months later the property was sold to another investor, and the Roth IRA netted around $46,500 from the sale after paying delinquent taxes and sales expenses. Because the IRA purchased the property subject to debt (the delinquent taxes), it owed UBIT in the amount of approximately $13,500 on its short term capital gain. This meant that even after paying UBIT the IRA went from $3,000 to approximately $33,000. That is a return of over 1,000% in under 4 months, or an annualized return of over 4,000%! This client will obviously have an easier time making money with her $33,000 Roth IRA than she could have with her $3,000 IRA. Since this was a Roth IRA, no more tax will be owed on this income if it is distributed as a qualified distribution after age 59 ½ or from any other income generated in this IRA from investments that are not subject to UBIT.

Ignorance of the tax law is no excuse. You can find out more on this topic by reviewing IRS Publication 598, or by visiting with your tax advisor. After analyzing a transaction, you may come to the conclusion that paying UBIT now in your IRA may be the way to financial freedom in your retirement. Like I often say, “UBIT? You bet!” The information contained in this article is not intended to be tax or investment advice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *