Two men in a boat on a stormy sea. 1803 etching. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org

Two men in a boat on a stormy sea. 1803 etching. Courtesy Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images.

Truth and Consequences
Do an internet search for self-directed IRA and you’ll find a number of promoters promising to give you complete control over your retirement accounts. Those promises may contain a grain of truth, but don’t let exaggerated claims capsize your retirement plan. It is true that by rolling over an existing IRA or 401(k) into a self-directed IRA, you can invest in assets not offered by most IRA providers. With a self-directed IRA, you can buy almost any type of asset: an interest in a start-up, a parcel of real estate, a patent, or precious metals. It’s also true that you can continue to defer tax on gains within the IRA. However, the rules governing self-directed IRAs contain important restrictions that you should understand before you set one up—make one wrong move and you could be looking at some serious tax consequences.

The Qualified Custodian
In order to establish a self-directed IRA, a qualified custodian must be used to hold the IRA assets, maintain records, file reports, and process transactions. The custodian must be a bank or an IRS approved non-bank trustee. (The IRS publishes a list of approved non-bank trustees on its website, available at http://www.irs.gov/Retirement-Plans/Approved-Nonbank-Trustees-and-Custodians). The role of the self-directed IRA custodian differs substantially from the role of conventional IRA custodians. The self-directed IRA custodian generally will not provide investment or tax advice, will not sell or recommend investment products, and will not perform due diligence to determine the suitability of any investments. The self-directed IRA account owner chooses where to invest and directs the custodian to execute each transaction.

Given the limited role of IRA custodians, the burden to maintain compliance with the laws and regulations that are applicable to all IRAs falls on the self-directed IRA account holder. Some of the most important requirements are found in Internal Revenue Code section 4975, which states that the IRA will lose its tax exempt status if the IRA engages in any prohibited transactions between the IRA and certain disqualified persons.

Disqualified Persons and Prohibited Transactions
The definition of disqualified person includes any fiduciary (such as the self-directed IRA account holder), certain members of the account holder’s family (including his spouse, ancestors, his descendants and their spouses), and business entities of which the IRA account holder owns 50 percent or more (either directly or indirectly). The IRA is prohibited fr