Checkbook Control 2.0 (for the self employed)

With tens of thousands of self directed IRA investors utilizing LLC structures to enjoy “checkbook control” authority of their self directed IRA investments, this post may serve as great news for those who aim to follow suit.

Solo 401(k) retirement plans can grant direct checkbook control without the use of an LLC or custodian.

The concept of custodian comes from Internal Revenue Code Section 408(a)(2) and is defined in Section 408(n). This entire IRC section 408 is devoted to Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs. The code basically explains that an IRA is normally a trust, and the trustee must be a bank. It then defines bank as a bank, trust company, or any company specifically approved by the IRS. This capacity of trustee to an IRA is known as “custodian”. This trustee role is simply that of investing the plan as directed by the accountholder.

A Solo 401(k) plan is a type of 401(k) that is designed for self employed individuals whose businesses have no full time employees. All 401(k) plans are qualified plans, and qualified plans do not have any special restrictions on who can serve as trustee.

Custodian and trustee

So the significant difference is that with a Solo 401(k), the participant can actually be the trustee and handle the investment transactions themselves. This can serve to simplify operating the plan because no third party is introduced. Such simplification can also serve to minimize third party fees.

Titling of Assets

If you’ve been researching or operating a self directed IRA, you may be familiar with how IRA assets must be titled. If Jeremy Smith had an IRA with Sunwest Trust, his IRA’s assets would be titled as:

Sunwest Trust, Inc. F/B/O Jeremy Smith IRA

“F/B/O” means “for benefit of”. To experience the benefits of checkbook control, some self directed IRA accountholders choose to create a special purpose LLC to be owned by their IRA but managed by them. So the membership units of the LLC would be titled as:

Sunwest Trust, Inc. F/B/O Jeremy Smith IRA

…and Jeremy (as manager of that LLC) would further invest the new LLC funds to purchase assets that would be titled in the name of the LLC.

To own and directly control retirement assets in a Solo 401(k) plan can be much simpler. Jeremy would simply have his plan setup to name himself as trustee. He would then direct the plan to purchase assets to be titled to:

Jeremy Smith Solo 401k Trust

…or whatever Jeremy chooses to name the trust that exists for the sole purpose of managing the assets for his Solo 401(k) plan. In this case, there is absolutely no need to setup an LLC for the purpose of gaining checkbook control.

This convenience is little known because conventionally 401(k) plans have served as an investment vehicle for large corporations with many participants. Solo 401(k) plans are much easier and less expensive to operate. In fact, Jeremy can serve the roles of employer, employee, plan participant, plan administrator, and plan trustee. Serving the role of employer and employee allows him to contribute up to $46,000 per year to his account (or $51,000 if he’s over age 50). If Jeremy’s wife works in his business, she can participate as well and contribute up to another $46k each year.

The Downside of Checkbook Control

You may hear about potential problems of checkbook control, such as recordkeeping and legal compliance. Firstly, the only reporting required for a Solo 401(k) is annual filing of Form 5500-EZ, and it is only required once plan assets exceed $250,000 in value. There are plenty of companies who will prepare this form for about $300.

The issue of checkbook control legal compliance is quite simple. All self directed accountholders and participants must avoid prohibited transactions. This requirement and responsibility rests solely on you as accountholder/participant regardless of whether you have checkbook control and regardless of whether you are using and IRA or Solo 401(k). See an elaborate explanation here.

The facts are that when using a self directed, self administered, self trusteed Solo 401(k):

  • meeting the reporting requirements is simple, and it’s inexpensive to have Form 5500-EZ prepared for you
  • there is no special or unique risk of legal noncompliance that would otherwise be eliminated by using a custodian


In my opinion, a Solo 401(k) where the same person serves all roles involved is the simplest, most effective and direct way for that person to self direct their retirement plan investments. It opens doors to the most flexible options possible. This allows for investment into foreign assets, investment clubs, tax liens, precious metals, and many other investments that some custodians optionally refuse.

So if you’re self employed (through your own Corporation, LLC, or even Sole Proprietorship) and you have no full time employees, the rules are bent in your favor with a Solo 401(k) – arranging and utilizing checkbook control is easier.

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