The most common of IRA tax traps results in tax bills through Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBTI). The sources of business income from stocks, bonds, and funds like interest income, capital gains, and dividends are exempt from UBTI and the corresponding tax (the Unrelated Business Income Tax or UBIT).
Fox Business’s recent article, “Your IRA and taxes: Don’t get a surprise tax bill” explains that IRAs that operate a business, have certain types of rental income, or receive income through certain partnerships will be taxed, when the total UBTI exceeds $1,000. This is to prevent tax-exempt entities from gaining an unfair advantage on regularly taxed business entities.
UBIT can take a chunk from an IRA, and the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 replaced the tiered corporate tax structure with a flat 21% tax rate. That begins in tax year 2018 (this tax season). These tax bills often have penalties, because IRA owners aren’t even aware that the bill exists.
Master Limited Partnerships (MLPs) held within IRAs are a good example of how UBTI can catch investors by surprise. MLPs are fairly popular investments, but when they’re held within an IRA, they’re subject to UBIT. When the tax is due, the IRA custodian must get a special tax ID number and file Form 990-T to report the income to the IRS. That owner must pay the tax, and is typically unaware of the bill, until it arrives as a completed form to be submitted to the IRS (completed and signed on behalf of the owner). In some instances, the owner may have to pay estimated taxes throughout the year. This can mean a significant underpayment penalty.
Working with prohibited investments will also result in a tax bill. Self-directed IRAs can violate the rules. Alternative investments such as artwork, antiques, and precious metals (with some exceptions) are generally considered as distributions and are subject to taxes.
Prohibited transactions are a step above prohibited investments and can result in the loss of tax-deferred status for the entire IRA. This includes using an IRA as security to obtain a loan, using IRA funds to purchase personal property, or paying yourself an unreasonable compensation for managing your own self-directed IRA. Executing a prohibited transaction can result in the entire IRA being treated as a taxable distribution to you.
Therefore, like fund holdings, ETFs, and other investments, it’s critical to understand exactly what you own and how to deal with the tax liabilities.
Reference: Fox Business (March 6, 2019) “Your IRA and taxes: Don’t get a surprise tax bill”