Fast Facts

Individual retirement accounts (IRA) help taxpayers save for retirement. Most IRAs invest in assets like stocks and mutual funds, but some IRA owners want to invest in unconventional assets like real estate or virtual currency.

IRS Publications 590-A and B offer guidance to taxpayers with IRAs, but details on unconventional assets are limited. For example, investing in some types of bullion is permitted, but storage requirements are not explained.

We recommended that IRS assess its options—like directing IRA owners to webpages with specialized information and technical regulations—to help taxpayers fully understand the rules on unconventional assets.

A broken piggy bank with cash spilling out of it

A broken piggy bank with cash spilling out of it

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) Publications 590-A and 590-B serve as a general handbook for millions of taxpayers with individual retirement accounts (IRA). However, the two-part publication provides limited information for IRA owners with unconventional assets surrounding complex tax rules in four compliance areas: (1) barred investments, (2) prohibited transactions, (3) unrelated business income, and (4) fair market value. GAO found other limited information about these topics on IRS's website. With only about 2 percent of IRAs invested in unconventional assets, adding more pages to Publications 590-A and 590-B may not be practical. By assessing options for informing IRA owners investing in unconventional assets, such as directing them to web pages with specialized information and technical regulations, IRS could better help them comply.

Noncompliance involving unconventional IRA assets is difficult to detect and time consuming for IRS to pursue. Whereas IRS relies on automated enforcement for IRAs invested in conventional assets held by custodians and trustees, enforcement for IRAs invested in unconventional assets or under IRA owner control requires labor-intensive audits of individual taxpayers. Using newly compiled information, IRS identified about 2 million IRAs that held certain types of hard-to-value assets as of 2016; however, about 20 percent of the forms were missing fair market value amounts for these assets (see fig.).

Numbers of IRAs Reporting Certain Types of Unconventional Assets and Reporting Their Value (Tax Year 2016)

Data element from IRS Form 5498

Number of forms reporting
(in millions)

Certain types of unconventional nonmarket assets

2.0

Fair market value of specified assets

1.6

Source: GAO analysis of IRS data. | GAO-20-210

IRS officials said this type of reporting alone may be inadequate for audit selection and identifying potentially abusive IRAs. When IRS lacks sufficient data to detect abusive transactions, IRS can require taxpayers to self-report certain transactions that have been used by other taxpayers to avoid taxes. Additional taxpayer or custodian disclosure of potentially abusive IRA transactions coupled with IRS analysis of reported details may help IRS to select IRA owner tax returns to audit.

Fragmented responsibility among IRS divisions creates challenges for examiners who need to share expertise and collaborate on IRA enforcement. The division responsible for tax-exempt entities trains its examiners on how to determine if an employee retirement plan has engaged in business activities subject to taxation. However, examiners in the division that audits complex individual tax returns, including those involving IRAs, do not receive such training. Training for those examiners could help improve collaboration on IRA enforcement.

Why GAO Did This Study

Unconventional IRA investments—such as real estate, certain precious metals, private equity, and virtual currency—can introduce risks to account owners who assume greater responsibility for navigating the complex rules that govern tax-favored retirement savings. IRS enforces tax rules relating to IRAs and can assess additional taxes.

GAO was asked to examine the challenges associated with enforcing rules governing IRAs invested in unconventional assets. This report examines (1) the extent to which IRS offers guidance to help taxpayers understand the rules governing unconventional IRA assets; and (2) the challenges IRS faces in enforcing those rules. GAO identified and analyzed IRS information to help taxpayers understand four compliance areas. GAO reviewed IRS analysis of nonmarket IRA assets reported by IRA custodians, and IRS audit procedures and training materials; and interviewed relevant IRS officials to identify enforcement challenges.


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Recommendations

GAO is recommending that IRS (1) assess options for updating its IRA publications to provide more information for taxpayers with unconventional assets, (2) evaluate the feasibility of requiring disclosure for high-risk IRA asset types associated with abusive tax schemes, and (3) develop auditor resources (such as training materials or job aids) that explain how IRAs with unconventional assets can generate unrelated business income tax. IRS generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Internal Revenue Service 1. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should assess options for updating Publications 590-A and 590-B to either include more information or direct taxpayers to other resources for IRA owners with investments in unconventional assets. Such information could include: storage requirements for IRA investments in certain precious metals; valuation methods for hard-to-value IRA assets; the Department of Labor's process for granting exemptions to IRA prohibited transactions rules; and IRA investments with the potential to create unrelated business income tax liabilities. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service 2. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue, building on forthcoming compliance research using new IRA asset data, should evaluate the feasibility of requiring disclosure for high-risk IRA asset types associated with abusive schemes as transactions of interest. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Internal Revenue Service 3. The Commissioner of Internal Revenue should develop resources (such as training materials or job aids) for Small Business/Self-Employed examiners conducting IRA owner audits that explain how IRAs with unconventional assets can generate unrelated business income tax liability, and how examiners can refer cases to unrelated business income experts in IRS for assistance. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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