Monday, May 20, 2013

Peek-ing Into "Rollover As Business Startup" IRAs

They are called ROBS – an acronym for “Rollovers as Business Startups.” The idea is to own a business through your IRA. Perhaps your IRA could be the bank in the transaction. Perhaps the business will go exponential, which would do wonders for your IRA balance.

Me? I do not particularly care for them. 

Why? This field is so fraught with landmines I cannot help wonder why I would want to cross it. And like Al Pacino in Godfather 3, “just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” “They” would be a client whom we will call Jay. We were discussing a biomedical startup on the east side of Cincinnati. High risk, high reward: that type of thing. Should it hit he would be having breakfast on his yacht off the coast of St. Augustine. Maybe I could visit.

“If it goes wrong,” said Jay, “I lose my investment. There is still plenty of time for me to recover.”

In this case, Jay was right. Jay would not be working at the business. He would not be renting property or equipment to the business. He would be a passive investor, which reduces his tax risk considerably. 

But what if the business had to borrow money? What do you think the odds are that a small business, with little or no track record, would be able to borrow without the owner’s guarantee? Remember, Jay (or rather, Jay’s IRA) would be an owner. 

This is a trap. Let’s discuss how someone fell into the trap.

In 2001, Lawrence Peek (Peek) and Darrell Fleck (Fleck) decided to buy a fire protection company, Abbott Fire & Safety, Inc (AFS). The brokerage firm facilitating the deal introduced them to Christian Blees, a CPA. Mr. Blees presented a tax strategy, which he called “IACC.” IACC involved establishing a self-directed IRA, transferring money into it from another IRA or 401(k), setting up a new corporation and having the self-directed IRA purchase shares in the new corporation.

In other words, a ROBS.

There is also something subtle here. Mr. Blees had structured a tax strategy, and he sold the strategy to clients. What was his role here? We will come back to this.

Anyway, reams of paperwork were exchanged and signed, with all the waivers and exculpatories and whatnots. Peek and Fleck set up their self directed IRAs. Each puts in $309,000 for a 50% share in a new company (FP). FP in turn acquires Abbott (AFS).

Problem. AFS cost $1,100,000. FP had only $618,000 in cash. What to do? Easy! FP borrows money. Peek and Fleck give personal guarantees.

Peek and Fleck were well advised. In 2003, they each converted one-half of their IRA into a Roth. They each converted the remaining half in 2004. Remember that there is no tax in the future when money comes out of a Roth. FP is going to the stars, and Peek and Fleck are going to make a tax-free bundle.

In 2006, they sell the company for approximately $1.7 million, to be collected over two years.

The IRS examines the 2006 and 2007 tax returns. The IRS voids the IRAs. This means the IRS includes the gain from the sale of FP stock on their personal returns. The IRS also assesses the substantial understatement (20%) penalty. As backup bombardment, the IRS imposes excise taxes for excess contributions to the IRAs.


Let’s walk through this.

An IRA is (generally) exempt from tax under Section 408(e)(1). A tax pro however will continue reading. A little further, Section 408(e)(2)(A) says that an account will cease to be an IRA if “the individual for whose benefit any individual retirement account is established… engages in any transaction prohibited by Section 4975.”

It behooves us to review Section 4975 and to stay as far away from it as possible.

Let us look at this ticking bomb defining a prohibited transaction:

4975(c)(1)(B)  (the) lending of money or other extension of credit between a plan and a disqualified person

So what? There was a guarantee, not a loan, right?

However, a guarantee is considered an indirect extension of credit (this is the Janpol case).

Peek and Fleck argued that the guarantee was between them and FP, not between them and the IRAs.

The Court pointed out the obvious: FP was owned by the IRAS, so - in the end – Peek and Fleck were transacting with their IRAs.

Oh,oh…  a prohibited transaction.

The Court noted that the guarantees existed without interruption since 2001. This meant that the IRAs ceased to be IRAs in 2001, when Peek and Fleck signed the guarantees. Yipes!

The Court now addressed the “substantial underpayment” penalty. Peek and Fleck immediately defended themselves by arguing that they had relied upon a CPA: Christian Blees. Reliance on a pro has long been accepted as reasonable cause to sidestep the penalty.

Too bad, said the Court. Mr. Blees was not a disinterested professional. He was selling a financial product. Heck, he had given it a name: “IACC.” He was not functioning as an independent CPA in this matter. No, he was functioning  as a “promoter.” Reliance on a promoter is not grounds for reasonable cause.

The Court affirmed the substantial understatement penalty.

What about the Roth conversions in 2003 and 2004? Each man would have paid tax upon conversion. Can they now get that money back?

The Court did not address this. Why? Remember that, after three years, a tax year will close. This means that the IRS cannot amend it. It also means that you cannot amend it. This case was decided in May 2013, so unless Peek and Fleck did something special to keep the 2003 and 2004 years open, there was no way to amend those years. They would simply have been out the tax they paid.

And have to pay tax again.

What else could go wrong?

The Court mused on the following questions:

(1) Did wage payments to Peek and Fleck constitute prohibited transactions?
(2) Did rent payments by FP to a company owned by Mrs. Peek and Mrs. Fleck constitute prohibited transactions?
(3) Did Peek and Fleck put too much money into their (Roth) IRAs, thereby triggering the excise tax for excess contributions?

The Court reviewed the wasteland after the nuclear blast of retroactively disqualifying the IRAs and decided that it did not need to consider these issues. Perhaps it felt the bodies were sufficiently dead.

As I said, I do not especially care for ROBS. They can detonate in a hundred different ways. Today we talked about just one of them. 

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