The illegitimate custodian test
Ask “Who should the check be payable to for the rollover contribution or transfer?”
Ask “If my IRA buys real estate and rents it out, to whom should the tenant make the rent checks payable?”
Ask “If my IRA owns real estate that needs repairs, who issues and signs the check to the repairmen?”
These questions will tell you who is actually serving as custodian. For instance, if you live in TX and unregulated company Dotrust is marketing its self-directed IRA services to you, the answer to one or more of the questions above will probably be something like Dotrust of Texas, Inc. If this is the case, ask to see its bank or trust charter – if it is an illegitimate custodian it won’t have one, and it will insist that another bank is technically the custodian. It not only matters who’s the custodian on the paperwork is; but it also matters who is acting as custodian as uncovered by the answers to the 3 questions above.
Why would somebody operate an illegitimate custodian company?
First of all, if it’s a franchise operation, the franchisee might not even know that he or she is part of an illegitimate IRA custodian scheme. Secondly, there can be a lot of profit to be made in an illegitimate IRA custodian scheme. The company can earn interest off of your IRA funds, and it may pass only some (or even none) of that interest earned on to you. It may also be able to earn higher interest rates when it collectively has custody of hundreds of millions of dollars in funds.
You may be thinking “This sounds like a company I’ve run into. But it promotes and and advertises and has been in the business for decades… it can’t be illegitimate, can it????”
Many high-profile schemes have been shut down. The private annuity trust scheme was promoted for over a decade before the IRS shut it down. Additionally, being in business for decades doesn’t guarantee that business is legitimate. Look at Bernie Madoff.
Madoff may be a harsh comparison. Those involved in an illegitimate IRA custodian scheme may not be knowingly harming anyone. They may even be attorneys or CPAs. They may believe they’ve merely created a loophole for themselves with the “stepped transaction” arrangement. They may be good people. But the bottom line is that there are significant risks you take in using their services, and you will pay the consequences if uncovered by the authorities. In my opinion, it never makes sense to use an illegitimate custodian because there are dozens of regulated/legitimate self-directed IRA custodians out there. There should be a balance between risk and reward. There is significant risk of using an unregulated/illegitimate custodian, and it offers no unique reward that isn’t offered by other self-directed IRA custodians.
Confused? If you have a self-directed IRA or are thinking of opening one at a custodian company, perform the illegitimate custodian test as described above.
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