An Investor's Guide to Master Limited Partnerships: MLPs and IRAs

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Master limited partnerships have become a darling for investors. As high-yielding investments, they can be a great addition to an income-seeking portfolio. The Alerian MLP ETF (NYSEMKT: AMLP  ) , which is one gauge of the broader MLP industry, has a trailing-12-month dividend yield of 5.95% compared with the S&P 500 average of 2.16%.

MLPs have been around for several years, but only in recent years have they taken off in the energy space.  The tricky part about MLPs is that they aren't like investing in a regular C-corporation. I've gone over some of the basics of investing in MLPs, but there are still some questions left unanswered. Today, let's look at how an MLP works in your IRA.

Pass the (taxable) buck
One of the largest reasons for a company to set up as an MLP is the preferential tax status. An MLP passes all tax obligations for the company along to the unitholders, who pay based on their personal marginal tax rate. A C-corporation, in contrast, would pay a corporate tax rate and then pay out a dividend, which is subsequently taxed as a capital gain for the individual. By passing along the tax obligation to the individual, not only does it generate more income for the individual, but it also takes money away from the IRS that would normally be collected if it was a C-corp.

And that's one of the primary reasons the government adjusted MLP laws back in the 1980s to limit them to companies that engaged in certain types of business. Before that ruling, several companies were setting up as MLPs only to avoid paying corporate taxes, so the government had to step in to ensure the continuation of tax revenues. 

On the other side of the coin, we have IRAs. Traditional IRAs are taxed as the money comes out as income, and Roth IRAs contain after-tax investments. Either way, any earnings or gains that occur in the account aren't taxed at the time they're earned, giving individual investors a great method to plan for retirement without worrying about having taxes take out big chunks along the way.  

The Unrelated Business Income Tax
As good as both IRAs and MLPs sound, don't expect to completely skip paying taxes if you buy MLPs in an IRA. A section of the tax code imposes what's called the Unrelated Business Income Tax, or UBIT, on IRAs with MLP income exceeding $1,000 annually.

Those who have worked with non-profit organizations may be more familiar with the UBIT. The tax code stipulates that if a non-profit entity receives income from a source not directly related to its tax-exempt function, then it's taxed on that revenue. The rule also applies to your IRA.  

The IRA is considered a non-profit entity with the goal of providing individuals with a source of income when they retire through investments. Whenever you realize a gain in your IRA from more traditional methods, such as interest, dividends, or royalties, they're considered "investment income" and are thus tax-exempt. In the case of an MLP, which is itself a special type of entity, the distributions paid to the partner are considered "earned" income, and the UBIT rule therefore applies.

To report your UBIT, you or your broker will need to fill out a 990-T form to be filed on behalf of your IRA. That's on top of the scheduled K-1 form from the company that would go with your individual tax return. You may also need to pay additional tax, which you may end up paying on your own or which your broker may end up paying on your behalf -- sometimes with additional fees for the service.

What a Fool believes
There are no additional financial gains for you as an investor to have an MLP in an IRA versus any other type of investment account. If anything, it just brings in another layer of paperwork for when you go to file every year. If you have an IRA and a non-IRA investment account, you might save yourself (or your tax specialist) some headaches by keeping the MLP in the non-IRA account. That doesn't mean that you should completely avoid having an MLP in an IRA, either. This kind of business structure can provide strong yields for long-term-minded investors and could help you in securing financial flexibility during retirement.

Making the right financial decisions today makes a world of difference in your golden years, but with most people chronically undersaving for retirement it's clear not enough is being done. Don't make the same mistakes as the masses. Learn about The Shocking Can't-Miss Truth About Your Retirement. It won't cost you a thing, but don't wait, because your free report won't be available forever.

Read/Post Comments (9) | Recommend This Article (28)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2013, at 7:34 PM, shsherm wrote:

    The risk of holding MLPs in a retirement account is overblown. I have seen so many articles stating that such holdings are a bad idea but although I hold a fairly large position in multiple MLPs in my IRA, I have not triggered any tax due. I think foreign stocks with foreign withholding tax which cannot be written off in an IRA is an even worse investment.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 12:24 AM, luise28 wrote:

    I'm glad to hear you say that MLPs in an IRA is not a problem. I just bought 100 shares of PAA in my IRA. That's a very small amount compared to some holdngs. I'll see what happens a year from now when I have to 'confess' to the IRS.

  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 9:58 AM, TMFDirtyBird wrote:


    If your confession is less than $1,000 gross income, then you don't need to file a 990-T. In orther words, if distribution payments from all MLPs in your IRA are less than $1,000 then you are exempt from the UBIT and don't need to file.



  • Report this Comment On March 20, 2013, at 6:47 PM, shsherm wrote:

    The losses seem to offset the income and that solves the potential problem.

  • Report this Comment On March 23, 2013, at 8:00 AM, waybet wrote:

    What about REITs in a IRA or ROTH?

  • Report this Comment On March 25, 2013, at 1:35 AM, whyaduck1128 wrote:


    REITs shouldn't be a problem in your IRA and/or Roth. Dividends from an REIT are uausually ordinary (as opposed to qualified) dividends, but inside a tax-deferred or tax-sheltered vehicle, that distinction doesn't matter.

  • Report this Comment On January 27, 2014, at 11:34 AM, watson14 wrote:

    can you put MLP's in a Roth without tax consequences?

  • Report this Comment On May 17, 2014, at 9:26 AM, Saintmark01 wrote:

    I have a retirement account with Schwab. Every year I take my K-1s to Schwab and THEY file the return with the IRS on my behalf. There is no charge for this. I am spared the expense of having my CPA doing the filing.

    In years in which I trigger the UBTI tax I receive a note from Schwab letting me know the amount of the tax and informing me that I will receive a Demand Letter from the IRS. The IRS letter will tell you the date the taxes will be extracted from the account. One caveat; you must have sufficient cash to cover what is owed or enough of the security will be sold to cover the obligation.

    I have held MLPS for years in my rollover account. No fuss, no muss, no cost!

  • Report this Comment On April 12, 2015, at 11:45 AM, azdannyboy wrote:

    I own several thousand shares of BX in IRA's. They have a hefty quarterly distribution, I think around .80 per share. Using that number if I hold the shares for a year I would generate about 15K of distribution per year. Please clarify for me is the distribution taxable as UBIT? I am new to owning the LP in my IRA's and don't want to be double taxed, along with the added expense of the paperwork to the IRS.

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