UBIT Tax and Self-Directed IRAs: Three Key Tips Every Investor Should Know

Unrelated Business Income Tax (“UBIT”) is often misunderstood by self-directed IRA investors and their professional advisors. In essence, UBIT is a tax that is due to an IRA when it receives “business income” as opposed to “investment income”. When we think of IRAs and retirement accounts, we think of them as receiving income without having to pay tax when the income is made. For example, when your IRA sells stock for a profit and that profit goes back to your IRA you don’t pay any tax on the gain. Similarly, when you sell real estate owned by your IRA for a profit and that profit goes back to your IRA, you don’t pay any tax on the gain. The reason for this is because the gain from the sale of an investment asset is deemed investment income and as a result it is exempt for UBIT tax.

Tip 1: “When Does UBIT Apply?”

UBIT applies when your IRA receives “unrelated business income”. However, if your IRA receives investment income, then that income is exempt from UBIT tax. Investment income that is exempt from UBIT includes the following.

Investment Income Exempt from UBIT:

  • Real Estate Rental Income, IRC 512(b)(3) – The rent of real estate is investment income and is exempt from UBIT
  • Interest Income, IRC 512(b)(1) – Interest and points made from the lending of money is investment income and is exempt from UBIT.
  • Capital Gain Income, IRC 512(b)(5) – The sale, exchange, or disposition of assets is investment income and is exempt from UBIT.
  • Dividend Income, IRC 512(b)(1) – Dividend income from a c-corp where the company paid corporate tax is investment income and exempt from UBIT.
  • Royalty Income, IRC 512(b)(2) – Royalty income derived from intangible property rights such as intellectual property and from oil/gas and mineral leasing activities is investment income and is exempt from UBIT.

There are two common areas where self-directed IRA investors run into UBIT issues and are outside of the exemptions outlined above. The first occurs when an IRA invests and buys LLC ownership in an operating business (e.g. sells goods or services) that is structured as a pass-thru entity for taxes (e.g. partnership) and that that does not pay corporate taxes. The income from the LLC flows to its owners and would be ordinary income. If the company has net taxable income it will flow down to the IRA as ordinary income on the k-1 and this will cause tax to the IRA as this will be business income and it does not fit into one of the investment income exemptions.

The second problematic area is when IRAs engage in real estate investment that do not result in investment income. For example, real estate development or a number of significant short-term real estate flips by an IRA will cause the assets of the IRA to be considered as inventory as opposed to investment assets and this will cause UBIT tax to the IRA.

Tip 2: UBIT Applies When You Have Debt Leveraging an IRA Investment

UBIT also applies to an IRA when it leverages its purchasing power with debt. If an IRA uses debt to buy an investment, then the income attributable to the debt is subject to UBIT. This income is referred to as unrelated debt financed income (UDFI) and it causes UBIT. The most common situation occurs when an IRA buys real estate with a non-recourse loan. For example, lets say an IRA buys a rental property for $100,000 and that $40,000 came from the IRA and $60,000 came form a non-recourse loan. The property is thus 60% leveraged and as a result, 60% of the income is not a result of the IRAs investment but the result of the debt invested. Because of this debt, that is not retirement plan money, the IRS requires tax to be paid on 60% of the income. So, if there is $10K of rental income on the property then $6K would be UDFI and would be subject to UBIT taxes.

For a more detailed outline on UDFI, please refer to my free one-hour webinar here.

Tip 3: UBIT Tax is Reported and Paid by the IRA via a Form 990-T Tax Return

Unrelated business income tax (UBIT) for an IRA is reported and paid via IRS Form 990-T. IRS Form 990-T is due for IRAs on April 15th of each year. IRA owner’s can file and obtain an automatic 6-month extension with the IRS by filing an extension request before the regular deadline.

If UBTI Tax is due, it is paid from the IRA and the IRA owner would send the prepared Form 990-T to their IRA custodian for their signature and for direction of payment to the IRS for any tax due as part of the 990-T Return.

For a more detailed outline of UBIT, please refer to Chapter 15 of The Self Directed IRA Handbook.

Asset Protection for Your Self Directed IRA

Many self directed IRA investors misunderstand or are unaware of the protections afforded to their IRA (Roth or traditional) as it relates to creditors and judgments. This article seeks to address the key areas of the law that every self directed IRA investor should know.

First, your IRA is not always exempt from creditors up to $1Million. Many IRA owners believe that federal law protects their IRA from creditors up to $1M. While Section 522(n) of the federal bankruptcy code protects an IRA owner’s IRA from creditors up to $1M, this protection is only provided to IRAs when an account owner is in bankruptcy. If the IRA owner is not in bankruptcy then the creditor protections are determined by state law and the laws of each state vary. For example, if you reside are a resident of Arizona then your IRA is still protected from creditors up to $1M even without filing bankruptcy. The approach Arizona takes is the most common, however, many states protections for IRAs outside of bankruptcy are extremely weak. For example, if you are a resident of California then your IRA is only protected in an amount necessary to provide for the debtor and their dependents. That’s a pretty subjective test in California and one that makes IRAs vulnerable to creditors. If your California IRA is from a rollover of a company plan, you may have other protections. California residents should check out my prior article here.

Second, while your IRA can be exempt from your personal creditors, as explained above, it is not exempt from liabilities that occur in the IRAs investments. For example, if your IRA owns a rental property and something happens on that rental property then the IRA is responsible for that liability (and possibly the IRA owner). As a result, many self directed IRA owner’s who won real estate or other liability producing assets utilize IRA/LLC’s which protect the IRA and the IRA owner from the liability of the property.

Third, if the IRA engages in a prohibited transaction under IRC Section 4975 then the IRA is no longer an IRA and is no longer exempt from creditors. Despite the bankruptcy and state law protections outlined in my first point above, if a creditor successfully proves that a prohibited transaction occurred within an IRA then account no longer is considered a valid IRA and therefore the protections from creditors vanish. There seems to have been an increase in creditors who are pursuing IRAs, particularly self directed IRAs, and I have been representing more and more self directed IRA owners in bankruptcy and other creditor collection actions in defending against prohibited transaction inquiries.

Fourth, many proponents of solo 401(k)s have argued that investors are better off using a self-directed solo 401(k) plan instead of a self-directed IRA because solo 401(k)s receive ERISA creditor protection (federal law) that is better than most state law creditor protections afforded to IRAs. While it is true that ERISA plan protection is better then state law IRA creditor protection and courts have already held that while a Solo K plan is a qualified plan it is not subject to ERISA. Yates v. Hendon, 541 U.S. at 20-21. Since a Solo K plan is not subject to ERISA, its account holders cannot seek ERISA creditor protection and would instead be treated the same as IRA owners. In sum, there is no difference in creditor protection between a solo 401(k) account and a self-directed IRA. We love Solo 401(k) plans, we just aren’t setting them up instead of IRAs because of asset protection purposes.

In summary, the best way to protect your self directed IRA from creditors is to understand the rules that govern your self directed IRA and to seek counsel and guidance to ensure that your retirement is available for you and not just your creditors.

Radio Ad Warning: Self-Directed IRA Investors Should Go For The Gold With Caution


I hear a radio ad every week that says, “there is a loophole that allows you to use your IRA to buy physical gold “tax-free” and that you can EVEN store this gold in your home.” If these radio ads were on T.V., there’d probably be an image of Scrooge McDuck swimming in gold at his McMansion. These ads cause much concern as they give some misleading information. The good news is that you really can use your IRA to invest in gold. In fact, I have many clients who like to buy actual physical gold with their IRAs. And we’re not talking about gold funds or gold ETFs, but actual solid gold. You can also own silver, platinum, and palladium with your IRA so long as those metals meet certain legal requirements. Here’s the catch though and what the radio ads are missing, you can only own precious metals that meet certain legal requirements and you cannot personally store the metals. Don’t count on someone who sells precious metals to be an expert on IRA rules. They make money when you buy precious metals and they have no training or license to properly advise you, so get your legal and tax advice from a competent lawyer or tax adviser.


Precious metals have been a popular investment for retirement plans since the financial market collapse in 2008. Most standard IRAs with financial institution custodians will typically only offer precious metals through funds or other complex structures whereby the IRA does not directly own the precious metals. A self-directed IRA can hold actual precious metals as long as those metals are not considered collectibles under law and as long as they are properly stored.

Only precious metals which meet the requirements of IRC § 408(m)(3) may be owned by an IRA. All other metals or coins are considered collectible items and cannot be held by an IRA. IRC § 408(m)(2)(C), and (D).

There are two categories of approved precious metals. The first category are specifically approved coins, such as American Gold or Silver eagles. The second category is bullion (e.g bars, or coin form bullion) that is gold, silver, platinum, or palladium, AND that meets certain purity requirements. The purity requirements are outlined below.

  • Gold, meeting minimum fineness requirements of 99.5%.
  • Silver, meeting minimum fineness requirements of 99.9%.
  • Platinum, meeting minimum fineness requirements of 99.95%.
  • Palladium, meeting minimum fineness requirements of 99.95%

Precious metals must be stored with a “bank” (eg. bank, credit union, or trust company). Personal storage of precious metals owned by an IRA is not allowed. A broker-dealer, third-party administrator, or any company not licensed as a bank, credit union, or trust company may not store precious metals owned by an IRA. IRS Private Letter Ruling 200217059.

There has been much confusion about owning precious metals with an IRA and there is confusion over some “loophole” that allows you to store them in your home. Our advice is against home storage, for tax code reasons and for security reasons. We’ve outlined the tax reasons more fully in a prior blog article you can check out here. In general though, our advice is that if your self-directed account owns metals directly through your custodian account then those metals will be stored with the custodian or with a “bank” whom the custodian uses for customers. If the metals are bought with an IRA owned LLC, then the metals of the LLC are subject to the storage rules and this can be satisfied by the LLC opening up a safe deposit box with a bank and by physically storing the metals there.

If an IRA purchases precious metals that do not meet the specific requirements of IRC § 408(m)(3), then the precious metals are deemed collectible items. As a result, they are considered distributed from the IRA at the time of purchase. IRC § 408(m)(1). Similarly, if the storage requirement is violated, then the precious metals are also deemed distributed as of the date of the storage violation. IRS Private Letter Ruling 20021705. The consequence of distribution is that the value of the amount involved is deemed distributed and is subject to the applicable taxes and penalty.

Go for the gold, or silver, or the other approved metals with your IRA. But make sure the metals meet the code requirements and that they are properly stored.

This article is an excerpt from Chapter 12: Precious Metals of The Self Directed IRA Handbook by Mat Sorensen