The Self-Directed IRA Structure has been in use for some 35 years, however, the concept of using an entity owned by an IRA to make an investment was first reviewed by the Tax Court in Swanson V. Commissioner 106 T.C. 76 (1996). In Swanson, the Tax Court, in ruling against the IRS, held that the funding of a new entity by an IRA for self-directing assets was a permitted transaction and not prohibited pursuant to Code Section 4975. The Swanson Case was later affirmed by the IRS in Field Service Advice Memorandum (FSA) 200128011. In FSA 200128011, the IRS, in providing guidance to IRS agents for purposes of conducting audits, confirmed the Tax Court’s holding in Swanson and held that a newly established entity owned by an IRA and managed by the IRA owner may make investments using IRA funds without violating the prohibited transaction rules under Internal Revenue Code Section 4975. In October 2013, the Tax Court in T.L. Ellis, TC Memo. 2013-245, Dec. 59,674(M) held that establishing a special purpose limited liability company (“LLC”) to make an investment did not trigger a prohibited transaction, as a newly established LLC cannot be deemed a disqualified person pursuant to Internal Revenue Code Section 4975. The impact of the impact of this ruling is enormous because it directly supports the position that a retirement account can fund a newly established LLC without triggering a prohibited transaction. The Ellis case is decisive because it will silence anyone who claims that using a special purpose LLC to make IRA investments would trigger a prohibited transaction.
When it comes to making IRA investments the IRS does not state which transactions are allowed, but only states what types of transactions are prohibited. The IRA prohibited transaction rules are outlined in Internal Revenue Code Sections 408 & 4975 and generally involve the prohibition against using IRA funds to buy life insurance, collectibles, or enter into any transaction with a “disqualified person”. As per the Internal Revenue Code, a “disqualified person” is generally defined as the IRA holder and any of his or her lineal descendants or any entity controlled by such person(s).
The following is a summary of the key cases & opinion confirming the legality of the Self-Directed IRA LLC:
Swanson V. Commissioner 106 T.C. 76 (1996)
The relevant facts of Swanson are as follows:
1. Mr. Swanson was the sole shareholder of H & S Swansons’ Tool Company (Swansons’ Tool).
2. Mr. Swanson arranged for the organization of Swansons’ Worldwide, Inc. (Worldwide). Mr. Swanson was named as president and director of Worldwide. Mr. Swanson also arranged for the creation of an individual retirement account (IRA #1).
3. Mr. Swanson directed the custodian of his IRA to execute a subscription agreement for 2,500 shares of Worldwide original issued stock. The shares were subsequently issued to IRA #1, which became the sole shareholder of Worldwide.
4. Swansons’ Tool paid commissions to Worldwide with respect to the sale by Swansons’ Tool of export property. Mr. Swanson, who had been named president of Worldwide, directed, with the IRA custodian’s consent, that Worldwide pay dividends to IRA #1.
5. A similar arrangement was set up with regards to IRA #2 and a second corporation called Swansons’ Trading Company.
6. Mr. Swanson received no compensation for his services as president and director of Swansons’ Worldwide, Inc. and Swansons’ Trading Company.
The IRS attacked Mr. Swanson’s IRA transactions on two levels. First, the IRS argued that the payment of dividends from Worldwide to IRA #1 was a prohibited transaction within the meaning of Code Section 4975(c)(1)(E) as an act of self-dealing, where a disqualified person who is a fiduciary deals with the assets of the plan in his own interest. Mr. Swanson argued that he engaged in no activities on behalf of Worldwide which benefited him other than as a beneficiary of IRA #1.
The Tax Court ruled for Mr. Swanson, and found that the IRS was not substantially justified in its position. The court said that section 4975(c)(1)(E) addresses itself only to acts of disqualified persons who, as fiduciaries, deal directly or indirectly with the income or assets of a plan for their own benefit or account. In Mr. Swanson’s case the court found that there was no such direct or indirect dealing with the income or assets of the IRA. The IRS never suggested that Mr. Swanson, acting as a “fiduciary” or otherwise, ever dealt with the corpus of IRA #1 for his own benefit. The Tax Court, in holding for Swanson, stated the following:
"We find that it was unreasonable for [the IRS] to maintain that a prohibited transaction occurred when Worldwide's stock was acquired by IRA #1. The stock acquired in that transaction was newly issued -- prior to that point in time, Worldwide had no shares or shareholders. A corporation without shares or shareholders does not fit within the definition of a disqualified person under section 4975(e)(2)(G). It was only after Worldwide issued its stock to IRA #1 that petitioner held a beneficial interest in Worldwide's stock, thereby causing Worldwide to become a disqualified person under section 4975(e)(2)(G). . . Therefore, [the IRS’] litigation position with respect to this issue was unreasonable as a matter of both law and fact."
Therefore, the Tax Court held that the only direct or indirect benefit that Mr. Swanson realized from the payments of dividends by Worldwide related solely to his status as a participant of IRA #1. In this regard, Mr. Swanson benefited only insofar as IRA #1 accumulated assets for future distribution.
The second issue the IRS raised was that the sale of stock by Worldwide to Mr. Swanson’s IRA was a prohibited transaction within the meaning of section 4975(c)(1)(A) of the Code, which prohibits the direct or indirect sale or exchange, or leasing, of any property between an IRA and a disqualified person. Mr. Swanson argued that at all relevant times IRA #1 was the sole shareholder of Worldwide, and that since the 2,500 shares of Worldwide issued to IRA #1 were original issue, no sale or exchange of the stock occurred.
Once again, the tax court agreed with Mr. Swanson. The critical factor was that the stock acquired in that transaction was newly issued – prior to that point in time, Worldwide had no shares or shareholders. The court found that a corporation without shares or shareholders does not fit within the definition of a disqualified person under section 4975(e)(2)(G). It was only after Worldwide issued its stock to IRA #1 that Swanson held a beneficial interest in Worldwide’s stock, thereby causing Worldwide to become a disqualified person. Accordingly, the issuance of stock to IRA #1 did not, within the plain meaning of section 4975(c)(1)(A), qualify as a “sale or exchange, or leasing, of any property between a plan and a disqualified person”.
The significance of the Swanson ruling was that the Tax Court approved the investment of IRA funds into a newly established entity that is managed by the IRA account holder. In ruling in favor or Mr. Swanson, the Tax Court formally approved the idea of an IRA holder being the sole director and officer of an entity owned by his IRA. In other words, the tax court endorsed a transaction whereby IRA funds are invested in a newly established entity such as a limited liability company of which the IRA owner is the manager. The Swanson Case clearly suggests that as long as the entity is newly established, the investment of IRA funds into that entity would not be treated as a prohibited transaction pursuant to Internal Revenue Code Section 4975.
IRS Field Service Advice Memorandum 200128011
IRS Field Service Advice (FSA) Memorandum 200128011 was the first IRS drafted opinion that confirmed the ruling of Swanson that held that the funding of a new entity by an IRA for self-directing assets was not a prohibited transaction pursuant to Code Section 4975.
An FSA is issued by the IRS to IRS field agents to guide them in the conduct of tax audits.
USCorp is a domestic subchapter S Corporation. Father owns a majority of the shares of USCorp. Father's three minor children own the remaining shares of USCorp equally. USCorp is in the business of selling Product A and some of its sales are made for export.
Father and each child own separate IRAs. Each of the four IRAs acquired a 25% interest in FSC A, a foreign sales corporation (“FSC”). USCorp entered into service and commission agreements with FSC A. FSC A agreed to act as commission agent in connection with export sales made by USCorp, in exchange for commissions based upon the administrative pricing rules applicable to FSCs. USCorp also agreed to perform certain services on behalf of FSC A, such as soliciting and negotiating contracts, for which FSC A would reimburse USCorp its actual costs.
During Taxable Year 1, FSC A made a cash distribution to its IRA shareholders, out of earnings and profits derived from foreign trade income relating to USCorp exports. The IRAs owning FSC A each received an equal amount of funds.
IRS advised that, based on Swanson, neither issuance of stock in FSC to IRAs nor payment of dividends by FSC to IRAs constituted direct prohibited transaction. o IRS warned that, based on facts, transaction could be indirect.
In light of Swanson, the IRS concluded that a prohibited transaction did not occur under Code Section 4975(c)(1)(A) in the original issuance of the stock of FSC A to the IRAs. Similarly, the IRS held that payment of dividends by FSC A to the IRAs in this case is not a prohibited transaction under Code Section 4975(c)(1)(D). The IRS further concluded that in light of Swanson, the ownership of FSC A stock by the IRAs, together with the payment of dividends by FSC A to the IRAs, should not constitute a prohibited transaction under Code Section 4975(c)(1)(E).
The significance of FSA 200128011 is that the IRS confirmed the Tax Court’s ruling in Swanson, which ruled against the IRS. Like Swanson, the FSA advised IRS agents conducting audits that the creation and ownership of a new entity by an IRA for investment purposes would not be considered a prohibited transaction under Code Section 4975. Furthermore, the IRS established that the payments of dividends by an IRA owned entity to an IRA would not constitute a prohibited transaction. Like the Tax Court in Swanson, the IRS concluded that an investment into a newly established entity to make IRA investments would not be a prohibited transaction pursuant to Internal Revenue Code Section 4975. The IRS, in confirming the Tax Court’s ruling in Swanson, seemed to suggest that the focus on whether a transaction is prohibited pursuant to IRS rules should be examined based on how IRA funds are invested not on the structure used to effect the investment. In other words, the type of investment made with IRA funds once contributed to the newly formed entity will determine whether the transaction is prohibited under Internal Revenue Code Section 4975, not the vehicle that was used to make the investment.
T.L. Ellis, TC Memo. 2013-245, Dec. 59,674(M)
On October 29, 2013, the Tax Court in T.L. Ellis, TC Memo. 2013-245, Dec. 59,674(M), held that establishing a special purpose limited liability company (“LLC”) to make an investment did not trigger a prohibited transaction, as a newly established LLC cannot be deemed a disqualified person pursuant to Internal Revenue Code Section 4975.
In TC Memo. 2013-245, Mr. Ellis retired with about $300,000 in his section 401(k) retirement plan, which he subsequently rolled over into a newly created self-directed IRA.
The taxpayer then created an LLC taxed as a corporation and had his IRA transfer the $300,000 into the LLC. The LLC was formed to engage in the business of used car sales. The taxpayer managed the used car business through the IRA LLC and received a modest salary.
The IRS argued that the formation of the LLC was a prohibited transaction under section 4975, which prohibits self-dealing. The Tax Court disagreed, holding that even though the taxpayer acted as a fiduciary to the IRA (and was therefore a disqualified person under section 4975), the LLC itself was not a disqualified person at the time of the transfer. After the transfer, the LLC was a disqualified person because it was owned by the Mr. Ellis’s IRA, a disqualified person. Additionally, the IRS also claimed that the taxpayer had engaged in a prohibited transaction by receiving a salary from the LLC. The court agreed with the IRS. Although the LLC (and not the IRA) was officially paying the taxpayer's salary, the Tax Court concluded that since the IRA was the sole owner of the LLC, and that the LLC was the IRA's only investment, the taxpayer (a disqualified person) was essentially being paid by his IRA.
The impact of the Tax Court’s ruling in TC Memo. 2013-245 is significant because it directly confirms the legality of the self-directed IRA LLC solution by validating that a retirement account can fund a newly established LLC without triggering a prohibited transaction. The Tax Court’s decision in TC Memo. 2013-245 is important because it will silence the small percentage of people still trying to deny the legality of the self-directed IRA LLC solution even after the Swanson Case and the 2001 IRS opinion letter confirmed its validity.
In many respects the Tax Court’s ruling in TC Memo. 2013-245 is more important than the Swanson ruling and IRS advisory opinion. Firstly, TC Memo. 2013-245 is the first case that directly reinforces the legality of using a newly established LLC to make IRA investments without triggering an IRS prohibited transaction. The Swanson case as well as IRS Advisory opinion involved a corporation, not a LLC. Secondly, TC Memo. 2013-245 demonstrates the importance of working with specialized tax professionals who have the necessary expertise regarding the IRS prohibited transaction rules before establishing a self-directed IRA “checkbook control” structure. If Mr. Ellis has worked with the IRA Financial Group to establish his “checkbook control” IRA LLC, he would have been told that he could have used an LLC to make an investment in the LLC business, although, the investment would have to be 100% passive and he would not have been able to be involved in the business in any way, including earning a salary.
In light of Swanson, FSA 200128011, and TC Memo. 2013-245 the establishment and funding of a new LLC by an IRA for purposes of making IRS approved investments will not be considered a prohibited transaction under Internal Revenue Code Section 4975.