Roth IRAs can be established and funded for high-income earners by using what is known as the “back door” Roth IRA contribution method. Many high-income earners believe that they can’t contribute to a Roth IRA because they make too much money and/or because they participate in a company 401k plan. Fortunately, this thinking is wrong. While direct contributions to a Roth IRA are limited to taxpayers with income in excess of $129,000 ($191,000 for married taxpayers), those whose income exceeds these amounts may make annual contributions to a non-deductible traditional IRA and then convert those amounts over to a Roth IRA.
Here’s a few examples of earners who can establish and fund a Roth IRA.
I’m a high-income earner and work for a company who offers a company 401(k) plan. I contribute the maximum amount to that plan each year. Can I establish and fund a Roth IRA? Yes, even though you are high-income and even though you participate in a company 401(k) plan, you can establish and fund a Roth IRA.
I’m self-employed and earn over $200,000 a year; can I have a Roth IRA? Isn’t my income too high? Yes, you can contribute to a Roth IRA despite having income that exceeds the Roth IRA income contribution limits of $191,000 for married taxpayers and $129,000 for single taxpayers.
The strategy used by high-income earners to make Roth IRA contributions involves the making of non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then converting those funds in the non-deductible traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This is often times referred to as a “back door” Roth IRA. In the end, you don’t get a tax deduction the amounts contributed but the funds are held in a Roth IRA and grow and come at tax-free upon retirement (just like a Roth IRA). Here’s how it works.
Step 1. Fund a new non-deductible traditional IRA. This IRA is “non-deductible” because high-income earners who participate in a company retirement plan (or who have a spouse who does) can’t also make “deductible” contributions to an IRA. The account can, however, be funded by non-deductible amounts up to the IRA annual contribution amounts of $5,500. The non-deductible contributions mean you don’t get a tax deduction on the amounts contributed to the traditional IRA. Don’t worry about having non-deductible contributions though as you’re converting to a Roth IRA so you don’t want a deduction for the funds contributed. If you did get a deduction for the contribution, you’d have to pay taxes on the amounts later converted to Roth. You’ll need to file IRS form 8606 for the tax year in which you make non-deductible IRA contributions. The form can be found here.
If you’re a high-income earner and you don’t have a company based retirement plan (or a spouse with one), then you simply establish a standard deductible traditional IRA, as there is no high-income contribution limitation on traditional IRAs when you don’t participate in a company plan.
Step 2. Convert the non-deductible traditional IRA funds to a Roth IRA. In 2010, the limitations on Roth IRA conversions, which previously restricted Roth IRA conversions for high-income earners, was removed. As a result, since 2010 all taxpayers are able to covert traditional IRA funds to Roth IRAs. It was in 2010 that this back door Roth IRA contribution strategy was first utilized as it relied on the ability to convert funds from traditional to Roth. It has been used by thousands of Americans since.
If you have other existing traditional IRAs, then the tax treatment of your conversion to Roth becomes a little more complicated as you must take into account those existing IRA funds when undertaking a conversion (including SEPs and SIMPLE IRAs). If the only IRA you have is the non-deductible IRA, then the conversion is easy because you convert the entire non-deductible IRA amount over to Roth with no tax on the conversion. Remember, you didn’t get a deduction into the non-deductible traditional IRA so there is not tax to apply on conversions. On the other hand, if you have an existing IRA with say $95,000 in it and you have $5,000 in non-deductible traditional IRA contributions in another account that you wish to convert to Roth, then the IRS requires you to covert over your IRA funds in equal parts deductible (the $95K bucket) and non-deductible amounts (the new $5K) based on the money you have in all traditional IRAs. So, if you wanted to convert $10,000, then you’d have to convert $9,500 (95%) of your deductible bucket, which portion of conversion is subject to tax, and $500 of you non-deductible bucket, which isn’t subject to tax upon once converted. Consequently, the “back door” Roth IRA isn’t well suited when you have existing traditional IRAs that contain deductible contributions and earnings from those sums.
There are two work-arounds to this Roth IRA conversion problem and both revolve around moving the existing traditional IRA funds into a 401(k) or other employer based plan as employer plan funds are not considered when determining what portions of the traditional IRAs are subject to tax on conversion (the deductible AND the non-deductible). If you participate in an existing company 401(k) plan, then you may roll over your traditional IRA funds into that 401(k) plan. Most 401(k) plans allows for this rollover from IRA to 401(k) so long as you are still employed by that company. If you are self-employed, you may establish a solo or owner only 401(k) plan and you can roll over your traditional IRA dollars into this 401(k). In the end though, if you can’t roll out existing traditional IRA funds into a 401(k), then the “back door” Roth IRA is going to cause some tax repercussions, as you also have to convert a portion of the existing traditional IRA funds, which will cause taxes upon conversion. Taxes on conversion aren’t “the end of the world” though as all of the money that comes out of that traditional IRA would be subject to tax at some point in time. The only issue is it causes a big tax bill now so careful planning must be taken.
The bottom line is that Roth IRAs can be established and funded by high-income earners. Don’t consider yourself “left out” on one of the greatest tax strategies offered to Americans: the Roth IRA.
B: Mat Sorensen, Attorney & Author of Self Directed IRA Handbook