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An Individual Retirement Account (or IRA) is a retirement plan account that provides some tax advantages for retirement savings in the United States.

Legal basis

The individual retirement arrangement and related vehicles were created by amendments to the Internal Revenue Code of 1954 (as amended) made by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which enacted (among other things) Internal Revenue Code sections 219 (26 U.S.C. § 219) and 408 (26 U.S.C. § 408) relating to IRAs.


There are a number of different types of IRAs which may be either employer-provided or self-provided plans. The types include:

    * Roth IRA - contributions are made with after-tax assets, all transactions within the IRA have no tax impact, and withdrawals are usually tax-free. Named for Senator William Roth.
    * Traditional IRA - contributions are often tax-deductible (often simplified as "money is deposited before tax" or "contributions are made with pre-tax assets"), all transactions and earnings within the IRA have no tax impact, and withdrawals at retirement are taxed as income (except for those portions of the withdrawal corresponding to contributions that were not deducted).
    * SEP IRA - a provision that allows an employer (typically a small business or self-employed individual) to make retirement plan contributions into a Traditional IRA established in the employee's name, instead of to a pension fund account in the company's name.
    * SIMPLE IRA - a simplified employee pension plan that allows both employer and employee contributions, similar to a 401(k) plan, but with lower contribution limits and simpler (and thus less costly) administration. Although it is termed an IRA, it is treated separately.
    * Self-Directed IRA - a self-directed IRA that permits the account holder to make investments on behalf of the retirement plan.

There are two other subtypes of IRA, named Rollover IRA and Conduit IRA, that are obsolete under current tax law (their functions have been subsumed by the Traditional IRA) but this tax law is set to expire unless extended. What was formerly known as an Educational IRA is now called a Coverdell Education Savings Account.

Starting with the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 (EGTRRA), many of the restrictions of what type of funds could be rolled into an IRA and what type of plans IRA funds could be rolled into were significantly relaxed. Additional acts made some further relaxations of restrictions. Essentially most retirement plans can be rolled into an IRA after meeting certain criteria, and most retirement plans can accept funds from an IRA.

The tax treatment of the above types of IRAs except for Roth IRAs are substantially similar, particularly for rules regarding distributions. SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs also have additional rules similar to those for qualified plans governing how contributions can and must be made and what employees are qualified to participate.


    * An IRA can only be funded with cash or cash equivalents. Attempting to transfer any other type of asset into the IRA is a prohibited transaction and disqualifies the fund from its beneficial tax treatment.
    * Rollovers, transfers, and conversions between IRAs and other retirement accounts can include any asset.
    * The maximum for an IRA contribution in years 2006 and 2007 is 100% of earned income or $4,000, whichever is less, for an individual under the age of 50. Individuals aged 50 and older can contribute up to 100% of earned income or $5,000 whichever is less.
    * This limit is for Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, or some combination of the two. You cannot put more than $4,000 into your Roth and traditional IRA combined ($5000 for individuals aged 50 or more).

    For example, if you are 45 and put $3,500 into your traditional IRA this year so far, you can either put $500 more into your traditional IRA or $500 in your Roth IRA. However, because this is still before the filing deadline (April 17, 2007) for calendar year 2006, the cash method taxpayer could get the full $4000 limit for the Roth by simply calling the $3,500 a Roth and not claiming the $3,500 above the line (i.e., reduces AGI) deduction and making the remaining $500 a Roth. There may be an additional administrative step needed so that the trustee which holds the IRA proceeds actually retitles or transfers the $3500 Traditional proceeds into the Roth category for their internal bookkeeping to survive an IRS audit.

Valid investments

Once money is inside an IRA, the IRA owner can direct the custodian to use the cash to purchase most types of securities, and some non security financial instruments. Some assets cannot be held in an IRA such as collectibles (e.g. art, baseball cards, and rare coins) and life insurance. Some assets are allowed, subject to certain restrictions by custodians themselves. For example an IRA cannot own real estate if the IRA owner has any involvement with that real estate, for instance as his personal residence or as a property manager (or if a relative fills one of these roles). The IRS specifically states that custodians may impose their own policies above the rules imposed by the IRS. It should also be noted that custodians cannot provide advice.

Most IRA custodians limit available investments to traditional brokerage accounts such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, and do not permit real estate in an IRA unless it is held indirectly via a security such as a real estate investment trust (REIT). True self-directed IRA custodians/administrators permit real estate and other non-traditional assets. They may be found via a web search. They typically charge fees based on asset values. There are certain special restrictions on real estate held in an IRA (the IRA owner cannot benefit from the property in any way, i.e. they can not use it). There are many companies who educate clients on the rules for self-directed IRA investors who need assistance. Self directed IRA's are more complicated and may require additional expertise and experience to properly set up. Not all CPAs, attorneys, or other advisors would have that type of experience.

An IRA may borrow money but any such loan must not be personally guaranteed by the owner of the IRA, and also the loan must be secured solely by assets in the IRA (in other words, a non-recourse loan). Also, the owner of the IRA may not pledge the IRA as security against a debt.

Distribution of funds

Although funds can be distributed from an IRA at any time, there are limited circumstances when money can be distributed, or withdrawn from the account, without penalties. Unless an exception applies, money can typically be withdrawn penalty free as taxable income from an IRA once the account owner reaches age 59 and a half. Also, non-Roth account owners must begin taking distributions of at least the calculated minimum amounts by April 1st of the year after reaching age 70 and a half. If the minimum distribution is not taken the penalty is 50% of the amount that should have been taken. The amount that must be taken is calculated based on a factor taken from the appropriate IRS table and is based on the life expectancy of the account owner and possibly their spouse as beneficiary if applicable. At the death of the account owner distributions must continue and if there is a designated beneficiary, distributions can be based on the life expectancy of the beneficiary.

There are several exceptions to the rule that penalties apply to distributions before age 59˝. Each exception has detailed rules that must be followed to be exempt from penalties. The exceptions include:

    * Unreimbursed medical expenses that are more than 7.5% of adjusted gross income.
    * Distributions that are not more than the cost of medical insurance while unemployed
    * Disability (defined as not being able to engage in any substantial gainful activity)
    * Amounts distributed to beneficiaries of a deceased IRA owner.
    * Distributions in the form of an annuity, see Substantially Equal Periodic Payments
    * Distributions that are not more than the qualified higher education expenses of the owner or their children or grandchildren
    * Distributions to buy, build, or rebuild a first home. ($10,000 lifetime maximum)
    * Distribution due to an IRS levy of the plan.

There are a number of other important details that govern different situations. For Roth IRA's with only contributed funds the basis can be withdrawn before age 59˝ without penalty (or tax) on a first in first out basis, and a penalty would only apply only on any growth (the taxable amount) that was taken out before 59˝ where an exception didn't apply. Amounts converted from a traditional to a Roth IRA must stay in the account for a minimum of 5 years to avoid having a penalty on withdrawal of basis unless one of the above exceptions applies.

Bankruptcy status

In the case of Rousey v. Jacoway, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously on April 4, 2005 that under section 522(d)(10)(E) of the United States Bankruptcy Code (11 U.S.C. § 522(d)(10)(E)), a debtor in bankruptcy can exempt his or her IRA from the bankruptcy estate. The Court indicated that because rights to withdrawals are based on age, IRAs should receive the same protection as other retirement plans. Thirty-four states already had laws effectively allowing an individual to exempt an IRA in bankruptcy, but the Supreme Court decision allows federal protection for IRAs. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 gave further protection to IRAs and the FDIC increased limits for deposits used to fund IRAs.


It is a prohibited transaction for the IRA owner to borrow money from the IRA. Such a transaction disqualifies the IRA from special tax treatment. An IRA may incur debt or borrow money secured by its assets but the IRA owner may not guarantee or secure the loan personally. Income from debt-financed property in an IRA may generate unrelated business taxable income in the IRA.

The rules regarding IRA rollovers and transfers allow the IRA owner to perform an "indirect rollover" to another IRA. This can be used to temporarily "borrow" money from the IRA, once per year. The money must be placed in another IRA account within 60 days, or the transaction will be deemed an early withdrawal (subject to the appropriate withdrawal taxes and penalties) and may not be replaced.


Subsection (a) of Code section 408 defines the term individual retirement account and subsection (b) defines the term individual retirement annuity. Individual retirement accounts and individual retirement annuities are collectively referred to as individual retirement plans (see Internal Revenue Code section 7701(a)(37)). Individual retirement accounts and individual retirement annuities are also collectively referred to as individual retirement "arrangements" under certain Treasury regulations (e.g., 26 C.F.R. sec. 1.408-4 and sec. 1.408-6) and in Publication 590 (2004) from the Internal Revenue Service.

The term "arrangement" also has more limited meanings. Under subsection (k) of section 408, a simplified employee pension (or SEP) is a particular kind of individual retirement account or individual retirement annuity. A SEP may contain a section 408(k)(6) “arrangement.” Simple retirement accounts with qualified salary reduction “arrangements” are allowed by subsection (p) of section 408.


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