Unrelated Business Taxable Income in an IRA

I’ve mentioned before about various types of transactions that are not allowed in your IRA, but we’ve not actually covered the topic of Unrelated Business Taxable Income (UBTI) in your IRA.  UBTI isn’t prohibited within an IRA, but it does pose problems and adds a great deal of complexity to your account.

Unrelated Business Taxable Income

So, what is UBTI anyway?  The concept of UBTI pre-dates IRAs – it was originally developed in relation to charitable organizations, trusts, and other tax-exempt entities.  The IRS developed this concept to ensure that tax-exempt organizations didn’t have a competitive advantage over taxable organizations, such as for-profit corporations.  The way that income is determined to be “unrelated” is by checking these two tests:

  • Is the income from a trade or business that is regularly carried on?
  • Is the trade or business unrelated to the tax-exempt entity’s exercise of the entity’s tax-exempt purpose?

If these two tests are met, then the income may be UBTI.  Here’s an example that may help you to better understand the concept of UBTI (taken from IRS Publication 598:

An exempt vocational school operates a handicraft shop that sells articles made by students in their regular courses of instruction. The students are paid a percentage of the sales price. In addition, the shop sells products made by local residents who make articles at home according to the shop’s specifications. The shop manager periodically inspects the articles during their manufacture to ensure that they meet desired standards of style and quality. Although many local participants are former students of the school, any qualified person may participate in the program. The sale of articles made by students does not constitute an unrelated trade or business, but the sale of products made by local residents is an unrelated trade or business and is subject to unrelated business income tax.

The concept of UBTI covers many more situations, and you can find out much more about other types of activities that can generate UBTI by going to IRS Publication 598.


Since IRAs are, until distribution, exempt from tax, UBTI applies to certain types of income received within an IRA account as well (all of this applies to Roth IRAs as well as traditional IRAs).  The IRS Code defines any active trade or business to unrelated to the IRA’s tax-exempt purpose.

There are exceptions as well (of course there are!).  The exceptions for tax-exempt organizations are numerous and complicated.  The following is a partial list exceptions specifically for IRAs:

  • dividends
  • interest (includes “points”)
  • royalties
  • rent from real property (real estate)
  • sales proceeds from real property, as long as the property is not held as inventory or held in the normal course of a business (e.g., flipping)

This is nowhere near an exhaustive list – see Publication 598 for more details.

Examples of ways that an IRA investment could generate UBTI include: full ownership of a pass-through business, such as a limited partnership or S-Corporation; use of IRA funds to loan to a business – and the terms of the loan include participation in the profits of the business (as opposed to simple loan payments); and use of IRA funds to flip properties (via a partnership or LLC, for example), since the property is considered inventory and not investments.

Another way that UBTI is generated is through debt-financed income (also known as UDFI).  UDFI occurs in a case like this:  An IRA purchases a piece of real estate to be held for rental property.  In the purchase of the property, the IRA put 50% down in cash and financed the remaining 50% through the seller.  Even though rental income is considered to be exempt (see the list above), since debt was used to acquire the property, half of the rental income (reducing as the debt is paid off) would be considered UDFI, and therefore subject to taxation.  The good news is that the proportional part of the expenses associated with the debt-financed income would offset the income.

Okay, so my IRA has UBTI.  Now what?

If your IRA generates UBTI, it doesn’t disqualify the IRA (like prohibited transactions would).  No, what UBTI does is requires your IRA to file an income tax return.  This is unusual since an IRA is supposed to be tax-exempt, but since the UBTI is generated, income tax will be owed on the income if it reaches certain levels.

If the IRA generates gross income of $1,000 or more during the tax year, the IRA must file Form 990-T by April 15 of the following year, just like individual tax returns.  The issues that arise with this include:

  • The IRA must have a federal tax id (EIN).
  • The custodian is considered responsible for filing Form 990-T, but most self-directed IRA custodians transfer this responsibility to the account owner.
  • The IRA custodian may not have all of the information required to file the return, as much of the information in these privately-held investments is given directly to the account owner.
  • The account owner ultimately has the final responsibility to file the Form 990-T, and lack of understanding of the rules can cause major issues for the account owner.
  • The account owner also will be required to file quarterly estimated tax payments as long as the investment is in place.  Every three months, a tax payment must be made to the IRS if the total tax for the year is expected to be greater than $500.

Form 990-T is a four-page form, and filling it out can be a fairly complex undertaking – one that you’re not likely to enjoy filling out (as I’m sure you do most tax forms).

Lastly, UBTI is one of those cases where income within an IRA is actually destined to be double-taxed.  Even though you pay tax on the UBTI as it is earned within the IRA (at trust rates, not individual rates, which are more compressed), when you take the money out of the IRA you’ll be taxed again.  Paying tax on UBTI doesn’t create non-taxable basis in the IRA, in other words.

With so many other eligible investment options, why not stick with the simple, non-UBTI investments for your IRA?  If you must invest in one of these investments that could trigger UBTI if it were in an IRA, just go ahead and invest your taxable monies in the endeavor – you’ll save yourself a lot of grief.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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