What GAO Found
For tax year 2011 (the most recent year available), an estimated 43 million taxpayers had individual retirement accounts (IRA) with a total reported fair market value (FMV) of $5.2 trillion. As shown in the table below, few taxpayers had aggregated balances exceeding $5 million as of 2011. Generally, taxpayers with IRA balances greater than $5 million tend to have adjusted gross incomes greater than $200,000, be joint filers, and are age 65 or older. Large individual and employer contributions sustained over decades and rolled over from an employer plan would be necessary to accumulate an IRA balance of more than $5 million. There is no total statutory limit on IRA accumulations or rollovers from employer defined contribution plans.
Estimated Taxpayers with Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) by Size of IRA Balance, Tax Year 2011
Notes: The taxpayer reflects a taxpaying unit including individuals as well as couples filing jointly, which may have more than one IRA owner. The IRA balance aggregates the value of all IRAs owned, including inherited IRAs.
A small number of taxpayers has accumulated larger IRA balances, likely by investing in assets unavailable to most investors—initially valued very low and offering disproportionately high potential investment returns if successful. Individuals who invest in these assets using certain types of IRAs can escape taxation on investment gains. For example, founders of companies who use IRAs to invest in nonpublicly traded shares of their newly formed companies can realize many millions of dollars in tax-favored gains on their investment if the company is successful. With no total limit on IRA accumulations, the government forgoes millions in tax revenue. The accumulation of these large IRA balances by a small number of investors stands in contrast to Congress's aim to prevent the tax-favored accumulation of balances exceeding what is needed for retirement.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has enforcement programs covering specific aspects of IRA noncompliance, such as excess contributions and undervalued assets. As recommended by an internal task team, IRS plans to collect data identifying nonpublicly traded assets comprising IRA investments. IRS expects the data will help it identify potential IRA noncompliance. However, research on those taxpayers and IRA assets at risk will hinge on getting resources to effectively compile and analyze the additional data. IRS officials said IRA valuation cases are audit-intensive and difficult to litigate because of the subjective nature of valuation. Additionally, the 3-year statute of limitations for assessing taxes owed can pose an obstacle for IRS pursuing noncompliant activity that spans years of IRA investment.
Why GAO Did This Study
In 2014, the federal government will forgo an estimated $17.45 billion in tax revenue from IRAs, which Congress created to ensure equitable tax treatment for those not covered by employer-sponsored retirement plans. Congress limited annual contributions to IRAs to prevent the tax-favored accumulation of unduly large balances. But concerns have been raised about whether the tax incentives encourage new or additional saving. Congress is reexamining retirement tax incentives as part of tax reform.GAO was asked to measure IRA balances and assess IRS enforcement of IRA laws.
This report (1) describes IRA balances in terms of reported FMV aggregated by taxpayers; (2) examines how IRA balances can become large; and (3) assesses how IRS ensures that taxpayers comply with IRA tax laws. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed 2011 IRS statistical data, reviewed IRS documentation and relevant literature, and interviewed government officials, financial industry stakeholders, and academics. GAO compared IRS enforcement plans and procedures with law and criteria for evaluating an enforcement program.
Congress should consider revisiting its legislative vision for the use of IRAs. GAO makes five recommendations to IRS, including approving plans to fully compile and digitize new data on nonpublicly traded IRA assets and seeking to extend the statute of limitations for IRA noncompliance. IRS generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.
Matter for Congressional Consideration
|To promote retirement savings without creating permanent tax-favored accounts for a small segment of the population, Congress should consider revisiting the use of IRAs to accumulate large balances and consider ways to improve the equity of the existing tax expenditure on IRAs. Options could include limits on (1) the types of assets permitted in IRAs, (2) the minimum valuation for an asset purchased by an IRA, or (3) the amount of assets that can be accumulated in IRAs and employersponsored plans that get preferential tax treatment.||No legislation limiting account owner accumulations enacted as of February 2020. In its October 2014 report, GAO found that individuals with limited, occupationally related opportunities could engage in sophisticated investment strategies and accumulate considerable tax-preferred wealth in IRAs and subsequently suggested to Congress legislative options. The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on a range of IRA policy issues in September 2014 for which GAO provided a statement for the record that covered preliminary data on IRA balances. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019, enacted in December 2019 as division O of the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020, amended a number of requirements related to retirement accounts (Public Law 116-94). For example, section 401 limits inherited beneficiaries' ability to continue tax deferral to 10 years beyond the account owner's death. This provision somewhat reduces the long-term financial benefits of accumulating large balances in IRA accounts. However the Act did not adopt any of the other limits identified in GAO's October 2014 report. Without legislation, the intended broad-based tax benefits of IRAs are likely to continue to be skewed toward a select group of individuals.|
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Internal Revenue Service||To improve IRS's ability to detect and pursue noncompliance associated with undervalued assets sheltered in IRAs and prohibited transactions, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should approve plans to fully compile and digitize the new data from electronic and paper-filed Form 5498s to ensure the efficient use of the information on nonpublicly traded IRA assets.|
|Internal Revenue Service||To improve IRS's ability to detect and pursue noncompliance associated with undervalued assets sheltered in IRAs and prohibited transactions, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should conduct research using the new Form 5498 data to identify IRAs holding nonpublic asset types, such as profits interests in private equity firms and hedge funds, and use that information for an IRSwide strategy to target enforcement efforts.|
|Internal Revenue Service||To improve IRS's ability to detect and pursue noncompliance associated with undervalued assets sheltered in IRAs and prohibited transactions, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue should work in consultation with the Department of the Treasury on a legislative proposal to expand the statute of limitations on IRA noncompliance to help IRS pursue valuation-related misreporting and prohibited transactions that may have originated outside the current statute's 3-year window.|
|Internal Revenue Service||To help taxpayers better understand compliance risks associated with certain IRA choices and improve compliance, the Commissioner of Revenue should, building on research data on IRAs holding nonpublic assets, identify options to provide outreach targeting taxpayers with nonpublic IRA assets and their custodians, such as reminder notices that engaging in prohibited transactions can result in loss of the IRA's tax-favored status.|
|Internal Revenue Service||To help taxpayers better understand compliance risks associated with certain IRA choices and improve compliance, the Commissioner of Revenue should add an explicit caution in Publication 590 Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs) for taxpayers about the potential risk of committing a prohibited transaction when investing in nonpublicly traded assets or directly controlling IRA assets.|