Can a Self-Directed IRA (“SDIRA”) Invest in Cryptocurrency and NFTs?

Self-directed IRAs (“SDIRAs”) can be a powerful investment tool when used the right way. Instead of relying on a bank or brokerage to hold and invest your retirement accounts, the SDIRA gives you direct control over what to invest in for your retirement. Best of all, the SDIRA is not limited to the traditional stock and bond market portfolios. Savvy and knowledgable investors willing to take on high levels of risk can direct their tax-advantaged savings into private companies, debt portfolios, real estate, and other non-traditional assets. While the personalized control and expanded investment opportunities may sound great, SDIRAs are subject to complex tax rules and other pitfalls, including extreme volatility and investment risk. The government rules and regulations ensure that individuals are not abusing the tax advantaged status of their retirement accounts. The Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”) governs what retirement accounts (including SDIRAs) can and cannot invest in.

What about cryptocurrency like Bitcoin? Can an SDIRA invest in cryptocurrency? Yes. In general, the IRC prohibits any IRAs (including self-directed ones) from owning life insurance, S-Corporation stock, and collectables. 26 USC 408. The term “collectable” includes art, antiques, collectable stamps, coins, alcoholic beverages, and “any other tangible personal property” specified by the IRS. Pursuant to Notice 2014-21, the IRS considers cryptocurrency to be intangible property for the purpose of taxation. This means it is treated the same as stocks or bonds – if you sell at a profit, you are paying capital gains tax. Note that cryptocurrency is not treated the same as cash – this also means that if you are paying for a product with Bitcoin, it is a taxable event. For the purposes of an SDIRA and retirement investment, you can certainly buy and hold (or HODL) cryptocurrency. Or sell it for a gain – the tax consequences are the same as they would be with a stock or bond portfolio (depending on whether you have a 401k or Roth-type setup). Remember that any profits that an SDIRA makes go right back into the SDIRA and may only be withdrawn for the benefit of the individual under certain conditions (like being 59 and a half years old) to retain the tax advantage. With cryptocurrency, it is critical to set up an SDIRA-owned LLC to establish and own the cryptowallet in conjunction with a bank account. The LLC structure allows the SDIRA beneficiary to act as a manager and direct investments right from the bank account rather than going back to the SDIRA custodian and waiting for an approval of a particular transaction. However, remember that the manager cannot receive compensation or commingle personal and SDIRA assets, accounts, or cryptowallets.

What about non-fungible tokens or NFTs? Can an SDIRA invest in those? Maybe. NFTs are digital property that exist only online, but unlike “traditional code,” NFTs are unique and cannot be copied. More accurately, they can be copied (like a print of the Mona Lisa can be copied), but there can be only one original. In that sense, they are like real-world property and their non-fungibility creates scarcity, and theoretically value. Although NFTs are based on the Ethereum blockchain (and Ethereum is a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin), cryptocurrency and NFTs are not necessarily treated the same way. As explained above, the IRS treats cryptocurrency the same as intangible property for the purposes of taxation – meaning like stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Section 408 of the Internal Revenue Code prohibits any IRA from investing in art, antiques, collectable stamps, coins, alcoholic beverages, and “any other tangible personal property” specified by the IRS. 26 USC 408. Will the IRS treat NFTs like cryptocurrency and therefore permitted SDIRA investments? Or will NFTs be treated like restricted collectables?

The IRS has not issued guidance on this matter. Some commentators (including the top search result on Google as of the writing of this article) have concluded that the IRS treats NFTs as collectibles and therefore they subject to a “higher minimum gains tax rate of 28%.” This is simply not true. While the IRS certainly treats NFTs as taxable property, it remains uncertain exactly how the IRS will tax these digital assets.

At its core an NFT is code. Cryptocurrency is also code, which the IRS expressly treats like “property” for the purpose of taxation. It follows that NFTs are also “property” for the purpose of taxes. But what kind of property? Are NFTs always considered art or collectibles? Or are they cryptocurrency and can be owned by an SDIRA? What about NFTs that represent virtual real estate in “worlds” like Decentraland, Cryptovoxels, Somnium Space, Sandbox? What if the NFT is an avatar, a name, a virtual outfit? There are several possible ways for the IRS to treat NFTs:

  • One, the IRS can take a pragmatic approach and tax them in accordance with what they would represent in the real world. Some NFTs have real-world counterparts – for example, Forbes reported that a digital collectible startup called Ethernity is set to auction limited edition real world baseball bats that include an NFT counterpart. Nike also patented something called “CryptoKicks,” which presumably will tie real sneakers to some sort of digital authentication certificate. If an NFT represents art, then it is treated like art for tax purposes. If an NFT is a trading card, then it is treated like a collectible. If the NFT represents virtual real estate, it is treated and taxed like real estate (which raises a whole different set of questions).
  • Two, the IRS can take a simple approach and classify NFTs as “property” that is treated exactly like cryptocurrency regardless of what the NFT “represents.” This second approach avoids litigation over what how a particular NFT should be taxed – for example, is an in-game avatar “art”? The second approach also would give SDIRA investors the flexibility to invest in virtual assets, including virtual real estate.

Finally, is the IRS really going after unreported cryptocurrency and NFT transactions? Absolutely. In 2020, the IRS established the Office of Fraud Enforcement and announced in 2021 that a special investigative team was conducting “Operation Hidden Treasure” to identify individuals who failed to report cryptocurrency (and presumably NFT assets).

Investing in cryptocurrency and NFTs is a hot trend in 2021. Although these digital assets may “exist” only as part of the virtual blockchain, the IRS considers them very real and very taxable. This is a constantly changing and developing area, so it is especially critical to consult a tax and legal professional before making any investment decisions. As I pointed out in my earlier post about SDIRAs, even if you are right, you may still end up litigating against the IRS in Tax Court.

More questions? Thinking about investing in cryptocurrency or NFTs? Funding your retirement through an SDIRA? Contact Dan Artaev by email or call or text to set up your initial consultation.

Disclaimer: This guide is for general informational and promotional purposes only. Nothing herein constitutes legal, investment, or tax advice. Every situation is different and faces its own unique set of challenges. Do not take any action or sign any contract until you have obtained specific guidance from a qualified professional.

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