IRA Valuations - Who Cares What It's Worth?

Not all IRAs are created equal (when it comes to providing an annual valuation, at least).  Consider the case of “Berks vs Commissioner of Internal Revenue.”

In the following case, Bernard and Claire Berks invested in notes with their IRAs, but the borrowers either defaulted or their collateral did not adequately secure the debt. This resulted in the notes being worth zero. The IRA provider, over a period of several years, requested that the Berks provide an annual valuation. The Berks referred these queries to the investment provider who, allegedly, called the provider and told them that “the notes are worth zero.” No documentation supporting this assertion was provided. The Berks requested that the assets be valued at zero and that the provider terminate their accounts. In accordance with the provider’s policy, the assets were distributed from the IRA holder’s account to the IRA holder at the last recorded book value of the asset. In other words, the IRA holder received a 1099-R (form for reporting distributions from pension plans) for the full amount of the account using the original face value of the notes.

The Berks took the case to tax court challenging the valuation of the IRA at the time of distribution. The IRS did not see this situation the same way as the Berks did.  Not only would the IRS not accept the opinion of the Berks that the IRA was worth zero, they penalized them 20 percent of the account value for their “negligence” in failing to make a reasonable attempt to comply with tax laws, maintain adequate books and records or to substantiate items properly. They were also cited with the intentional “disregard” for rules and regulations.

As is usual in tax cases, the burden of proof falls on the taxpayer. The Berks’ tax return claimed the IRA distributions were not taxable and therefore paid no taxes on the reported distribution. They blamed the preparer for this “oversight.” They blamed the IRA Provider for distributing the account at full value. In short, they took no responsibility for their account or their tax preparation and the court was not sympathetic.  In fact, the court found that these arguments actually proved the Berks’ negligence.

The case brings up a greater issue about the importance of valuations. IRA holders whose accounts have alternative assets in them receive a request from their IRA providers every year to provide fair market value for their IRA’s assets. For most IRA holders, these annual valuations are of little importance because their IRAs are invested in publicly traded securities and their IRA providers will often prepare valuations for their clients at a fee. For reference, about 97 percent of IRAs are invested in publicly traded securities.&

For the billions of dollars invested in self-directed IRAs, however, valuations matter a great deal. The account holder is responsible for providing valuations every year to their IRA providers, who then report those valuations to the IRS.

This issue of determining fair market values for hard-to-value assets in SDIRAs has become a focal point for the IRS. The IRS is now paying attention to the fact that with many SDIRA assets, there is a wealth of taxes to either be reaped or avoided.

Learning Points:

  1. First, provide an annual valuation, with documentation, when the IRA provider requests it. 
  2. Second, if the asset is worth zero, provide proof that the asset is worth zero. For those with publically traded IRA investments, much of the work is done for them by the IRA investment provider, usually at a fee (we don’t charge a valuation fee at New Direction IRA.) 
  3. SDIRAs give IRA holders entrance to every investment allowed by law, but the account holder must find and manage the investment and provide the value annually.  Those are the rules. With SDIRAs, investors receive unlimited possibilities but they are also expected to know and understand the rules.    

For information about fair market valuations and self-directed IRA investing in general, feel free to reach out at 877-742-1270 or