New 2019 U.S. GAO Report on IRA Prohibited Transaction Exemptions
Mat Sorensen


July 22, 2019

The Government Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued their most recent report on self-directed IRAs and concluded that the IRS and DOL should do more to collaborate on prohibited transactions in IRAs. The report and the GAO’s work was an excellent analysis of some of the issues facing IRA owners.

There were two significant sections in the report for Self-Directed IRA accounts: Prohibited transaction exemption applications and IRAs with large balances likely being self-directed.

Prohibited Transaction Exemption Applications

An IRA owner may request an exemption for a prohibited transaction by making a formal written request to the DOL. While the IRS enforces the prohibited transaction rules, the DOL has interpretative authority and is the agency who can grant exemptions. An exemption must be obtained in advance of the transaction and takes on average one year to obtain.

A common prohibited transaction exemption request is one where the IRA owner owns real estate in an IRA which they would like to use personally. While the property could be distributed as an in-kind distribution there are tax consequences to such distribution. The DOL has granted this exemption request for IRA owners in the past and generally requires an appraisal to set the value and a broker/agent to effectuate the transaction.

The prohibited transaction exemption process is rarely utilized by IRA owners. The GAO noted that in the past 11 years only 48 prohibited transaction exemptions where granted for IRAs.

The biggest deterrent from my experience with clients is that it takes 6 months to 1 year to get approved and about $5,000 in legal fees to make the application and handle it to decision. Usually such long timelines are not something IRA owners are willing to wait on as circumstances change from one year to the next. The DOL does have some expedited prohibited transaction exemption procedures, known as EXPRO, that can be used when an account owner is seeking to rely on an exemption that has already been granted by the DOL to someone in a similar situation.  Use of such procedures with IRA owners, which is already allowed but not readily known, could provide a better outcome as EXPRO applications are granted more quickly.

The GAO recommended that the IRS and DOL collaborate on prohibited transaction exemptions to better regulate and understand IRAs.

IRAs With Large Balances Likely Self-Directed

In their report, the GAO also noted some of their prior work on self-directed IRAs and stated the following:

“…IRA owners who have accumulated unusually large IRA balances likely have invested in unconventional assets like non-publicly traded shares of stock and partnership interests.”

While this is no news to self-directed IRA owners, it should be something of interest to policy makers and financial advisers who may view self-directed accounts with skepticism. If self-directed accounts have proven to get unusually high balances, wouldn’t we want more people to use them to do the same thing and to secure their retirement. The concept of self-directed IRAs is simple: Give more freedom and control, and let people invest in what they know. Let account owners decide and obtain the benefits (or burden) of their decisions with their money. Sure, there are risks but the best person to take risks is the person whose actual hard-earned money is on the line.

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