I like solutions that give me maximum choice and control. I service my own motorbikes and guitars. I do my own basic electrical repairs and plumbing. I file my own taxes … unless they get really complicated, in which case I know where to draw the line and bring in an expert.
Along the way, I’ve learned to avoid big, remote institutions, since they don’t give me many choices. Retirement planning is a case in point. For a few years I had a 403(b) plan from a previous employer. Once I took fees and costs into account, it became clear that I’d do better paying taxes on the salary that would have gone to contributions, and investing it myself.
Many people are waking up to the fact that individual retirement accounts (IRAs) suffer from the same problem … but it’s one you can solve by moving away from IRAs offered by big institutions and moving to a self-directed IRA.
The Liberated IRA
Most retirement investment products aren’t designed with you in mind. Instead, they’re designed to direct your retirement savings to U.S. stock markets. An entire “food chain” has grown up around the U.S. retirement system, pumping money from Main Street to Wall Street … as if it needed more.
The problem is the lack of investment options. Most institutional IRAs offer only a limited range of U.S. equities and bonds.
The truth is that your IRA can legally pursue almost any investment option imaginable — real estate, business start-ups, intellectual property, precious metals — you name it. A “self-directed” IRA is perfectly legal — and can be as simple or as complex as you’re comfortable with.
Here’s how it works. By law, all IRAs must have a U.S.-based “custodian” who’s responsible for safekeeping your IRA, keeping records, processing transactions, filing IRS forms, and other administrative duties. Most of the big custodians simplify things for themselves by offering a standard menu of U.S. securities and bonds. But there’s nothing to stop an IRA custodian from offering offshore investments, real estate, private mortgages, precious metals … and much more. In essence, some custodians allow you to manage your own IRA.
A self-directed IRA is just like a conventional IRA: tax-deductible contributions; no tax on earnings; distributions are taxed as ordinary income. The difference is that a specialist IRA custodian permits you to actively choose its investments.
For example, your self-directed IRA could buy a home that you plan to use in retirement, but rent out in the meantime. Tax-deferred rental income is used to maintain the property and to fund other investments. You can select the property and negotiate the terms of the deal yourself. (The custodian must be the legal owner, however, so all documents are in its name, albeit referencing you as the IRA owner, such as “XXX Company Custodian for benefit of (Your Name) IRA.”)
When you take title of the house at retirement, you’ll pay ordinary income tax on the appreciation of the house’s value since the IRA purchased it. For example, let’s say your self-directed IRA purchases a house for $100,000. You rent it out, and it appreciates at an average annual rate of 8%. After 20 years, your $100,000 investment would be worth $215,890, and when you move in you’d pay income tax on the $115,890.
The Gold Option
Thanks to the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997, a self-directed IRA can hold gold, silver, platinum and palladium, either as bullion or coins. In both cases the metal or coin must be of a specific quality to qualify for an IRA. For example, an IRA can own American Gold Eagle coins, Canadian Gold Maple Leaf coins, American Silver Eagle coins, American Platinum Eagle coins and gold and silver bullion 99.9% pure or better. (Some well-known gold coins, including the South African Krugerrand, are off-limits, as are bullion bars that are not sufficiently pure.)
To comply with IRS requirements, precious metals in an IRA must be held by the custodian … sorry, you can’t keep it yourself. IRS Publication 590 specifies that “The trustee or custodian must be a bank, a federally insured credit union, a savings and loan association, or an entity approved by the IRS to act as trustee or custodian.” Many trustees/custodians use private depositories for storing IRA metals. Alternatively, your IRA can invest in COMEX metals futures or exchange traded funds (ETFs).
The Ultimate Offshore Option
There’s one more IRA “hack” that can really open up the world of retirement investing. That’s to have your IRA custodian create and own a limited liability company (LLC), either in the U.S. or abroad, that in turn can make the requisite investments, including gold and other metals. In this case, you can essentially manage the LLC yourself, bypassing the custodian for most matters.
The key to all of this, however, is to get good advice from an experienced and knowledgeable tax attorney. IRS rules for IRAs are quite strict, and mistakes can lead to “early distributions” … with the tax implications that go with it.
So go ahead, and supercharge your IRA … but get some help. DIY doesn’t mean do it alone, after all.
Offshore and Asset Protection Editor