Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Rollover As Business Startup Got “ROB”bed



We have talked before about ROBS. This is when one borrows money from his/her IRA to start a business.  ROBS have become increasingly popular, and I have wandered in tax Siberia by being negative on them. I know a CPA in New Jersey who even used a ROBS to start his practice. I gave him some slack (but just a little) as he is a general accounting practitioner and not a tax specialist.

Here is the question I hear: what is one’s downside if it goes south? They can’t eat me, right?

My answer: you have blown up your IRA via a prohibited transaction. A prohibited is nothing to take lightly. It contaminates your IRA. All of it. Even the monies you leave behind in the IRA. This is a severe case of terminal.

Now I have a case to share with my clients: Ellis v Commissioner.

Mr. Ellis accumulated a sizable 401(k). In 2005 he formed an LLC (CST) to sell used cars. He moved $319,500 from his 401(k) to an IRA to acquire the initial membership units of CST. He worked there as general manager and received a modest W-2. CST made a tax election to be taxed as a corporation. It did this to facilitate the ROBS tax planning.

Mr. Ellis, his wife and children also formed another LLC (CDJ LLC) in 2005 to acquire real estate. Mr. Ellis did not use his IRA to fund this transaction.

In 2006 CDJ LLC leased its real estate to CST for $21,800. No surprise.

Mr. Ellis also received a larger – but still modest – W-2 for 2006.

The IRS swooped in on 2005 and 2006. They wanted:

·        Income taxes of $135,936 for 2005
·        Alternatively, income taxes of $133,067 for 2006
·        Early distribution penalties of 10%
·        Accuracy-related penalties of $27,187 for 2005 or $26,613 for 2006

What set off the IRS?

·        Mr. Ellis engaged in “prohibited transactions” with his IRA.
·        When that happened, his IRA ceased to be an “eligible retirement plan” as of the first day of that taxable year.
·        Failure to be an “eligible retirement plan” means that that the IRA was deemed distributed to him.
·        As he was not yet 59 ½ there would be early distribution penalties in addition to income tax.

When did this happen? Take your pick:

·        When Mr. Ellis used his IRA to buy membership interests in CST in 2005
·        When CST paid him a W-2 in 2005
·        When CST paid him a W-2 in 2006
·        When CST paid CDJ LLC (an entity owned by him and his family) rent in 2006

OBSERVATION: Do you see the danger with the ROBS? Chances are that you will be giving the IRS multiple points at which to breach your tax planning. You have to defend all points. Failure to defend one – just one – means the IRS wins.

Code section 4975 defines “prohibited transactions” with respect to a retirement plan, including IRAs. Its purpose is to prevent taxpayers from self-dealing with their retirement plan. The purpose of a retirement plan is to save for retirement. The government did not allow tax breaks intending for the plan to be a piggybank or an alternative to traditional bank loans.

Self-dealing with one’s retirement plan is per-se prohibited. It is of no consequence whether the deal is prudent, in the best-interest-of or outrageously profitable. Prohibited means prohibited, and the penalties are correspondingly harsh.

The Court proceeds step-by-step:

(1) CST did not have any shares or units outstanding when Mr. Ellis invested in 2005. Fortunately, there was precedent (in Swanson v Commissioner) that a corporation without shareholders is not a disqualified person for this purpose.

Mr. Ellis won this one.

(2) Mr. Ellis, feeling emboldened, argued that Code section 4975(c) did not apply because he was paid reasonable compensation for services rendered, or for the reimbursement of expenses incurred, in the performance of his duties with the plan.

The Court dryly notes that he was paid for being the general manager of CST, not for administrating the plan. Code section 4975(c) did not apply. Ellis was a disqualified person, and transfers of plan assets to a disqualified person are prohibited.

Mr. Ellis argued that the payment was from the business and not from his plan. The Court observed that the business was such a large piece of his IRA that, in reality, the business and his IRA were the same entity.

Mr. Ellis lost this one.

(3) Having determined the W-2 a prohibited transaction, it was not necessary for the Court again to consider whether the rent payment was also prohibited.

The Court goes through the consequences of Mr. Ellis blowing-up his IRA:

(1) Whatever he moved from his 401(k) to his IRA in 2005 is deemed distributed to him. He had to pay income taxes on it.

a.     The Court did observe that – since the IRA erupted in 2005 - it couldn’t again erupt in 2006. Thank goodness for small favors.

(2) Since Mr. Ellis was not age 59 ½, the 10% early distribution penalty applied.

(3) Since we are talking big bucks, the substantial underpayment penalty also applied for 2005. Ellis could avoid the penalty by showing reasonable cause.  He didn’t.

I suppose one could avoid IRA/business unity argument by limiting the ROBS to a small portion of one’s IRA. That would likely require a very sizeable IRA, and what would “small” mean in this context?

I disagree with the Court on the reasonable cause argument. ROBS are relatively recent, and takes a while for a body of law, including case law, to be developed. I find it chilling that the Court thought that the law and its Regulations were sufficiently clear that Mr. Ellis should have known better. Whereas I disagree with many of the ROBS arguments, I acknowledge that they are reasonable arguments. The Court evidently did not feel the same.

OBSERVATION: How long do you think it will be before ROBS are a “reportable transaction,” bringing disclosure to its promoters and attention to the taxpayer?

My thoughts?  I intend to give this case to any client or potential client who is considering a ROBS. I can see situations where a ROBS can still pass muster – if the taxpayer is a true and passive investor, for example. Problem is, that is not how ROBS are promoted. They are marketed to the prematurely and involuntarily unemployed, and as a way to fund a Five Guys Burgers and Fries franchise or that accounting practice in New Jersey. Odds are you will be working there, as you are too young to retire. You will not be passive. If you were passive, why not just buy Altria or Proctor & Gamble stock? You don’t need a ROBS for that.

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