You may think the only thing you have to know about a Roth IRA is that your contributions are limited to $6,000 if you are under age 50, and $7,000 if you are 50 or over (at least for 2019). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are the 11 most common mistakes people with Roths are likely to make and how to avoid them.

Quick Recap: Roth vs. Traditional IRA

First, though, a quick refresher on the key differences between a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible when you make them. However, the distributions can be tax-free. This untaxed status applies to both the original investments and the gains on them, assuming you’re over age 59½ when you withdraw the funds and that the account is at least five years old (see rule No. 5, below).

In contrast, contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible. However, when it comes time to withdraw the funds, you'll have to pay taxes on them at your current income-tax rate. What’s more, you have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) on traditional IRAs starting when you hit age 70½. You never have to withdraw funds from Roth IRAs. In fact, if you don't need the money, you can leave the whole account to your heirs.

Key Takeaways

  • You are not allowed to contribute more to a Roth IRA than you have earned in income, or to contribute at all if your modified adjusted gross income is above a certain amount.
  • Exceeding the Roth IRA contribution limit will result in a yearly 6% penalty on the excess.
  • IRA rollovers must also be done carefully and within 60 days to avoid taxes and penalties.
  • Other bad moves include not naming beneficiaries and not taking distributions if you inherit a Roth IRA.

Now, here are the mistakes to avoid:

1. Not Earning Enough to Contribute

You cannot contribute more to a Roth IRA than you received in earned income for the year. This income can come from wages, salaries, tips, professional fees, bonuses, and other amounts received for providing personal services. You can also count earnings from commissions, self-employment income, nontaxable combat pay, military differential pay, and taxable alimony and separate maintenance payments.

So-called unearned income—such as dividends, interest, or capital gains—cannot be used to determine your allowable Roth contribution.

You can contribute to a Roth up to allowable limits for both yourself and your spouse as long as you file your taxes jointly and one of you makes enough eligible income to fund the contributions.

2. Earning Too Much to Contribute

You can earn too much overall to contribute to a Roth IRA. Whether you're eligible is determined by your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). When calculating your MAGI, your income is reduced by certain deductions, such as contributions to a traditional IRA, student loan interest, tuition and fees, and foreign earnings.

The income limits for Roth IRAs are adjusted periodically by the IRS. As of 2019 people who are married filing jointly or a qualifying widow(er) must make less than $193,000 to be able to make the maximum contribution. If you earn between $193,000 and $203,000 you may be able to contribute some money, but the amount will be reduced. With earnings above that, no contribution is allowed.

Taxpayers in 2019 who are filing as single, head of household, or married filing separately (who did not live with their spouse at any time during the year) can contribute to a Roth IRA as long as they earn less than $122,000. The allowed contribution starts phasing out if they earn $122,000 or more and is eliminated entirely above $137,000.

What if you’re married and live with your spouse, but file taxes separately? If you earn more than $10,000, you cannot contribute to a Roth IRA at all. If you made less, you may be able to make a reduced contribution. Only those who are completely separated can make a substantial contribution, as delineated above.

3. Not Contributing for Your Spouse

As rule No. 1 said, you can’t contribute more to a Roth than you’ve earned in a given year. But there’s an important exception for non-working spouses, as long as you’re legally married and file a joint tax return.

There's no such thing as a joint IRA, however. A spousal IRA allows a non-working spouse to establish an account, and then have the working spouse make contributions to it as well as to their own. Of course, the working spouse’s income has to be enough to cover both contributions. But increasing—perhaps even doubling—your annual contributions is certainly not the worst idea in the world, and could significantly increase a family's retirement savings over time.

4. Contributing Too Much

If you have more than one IRA, or your income gets an unexpected boost, you can easily make the mistake of contributing more than the allowable maximum. (Remember, the $6,000/$7,000 annual limit is for all your IRAs total, not per account.) This can cost you a penalty of 6% on the excess each year until you rectify the mistake.

IRA annual contribution limits apply to the collective sum you put into your IRAs, be they Roth or traditional. So, in 2019, the $6,000/$7,000 cap is for all your IRAs in total, not per account.

You can avoid the penalty if you discover the mistake before filing your tax return and take the excess contribution, plus any earnings on it, out of the account. (Actually, you can withdraw some or all of your Roth IRA contributions up to six months after the original due date of the return, but you then must file an amended return.) You can also carry over the excess contribution to another tax year, but unless that’s done simultaneously with the correction, it might trigger the penalty.

5. Pulling Out Earnings Too Early

The withdrawal rules for Roth funds can be a tad complicated. You can withdraw the amounts you contributed any time, at any age—those contributions were made with after-tax dollars, after all. But you may owe income taxes and a 10% penalty on any earnings you withdraw. In order to enjoy tax- and penalty-free withdrawals on any profits or income the investments generated, a Roth IRA owner must be 59½ years old and have owned the account for at least five years (the "5-year rule"). If you pull the money out before those two milestones, you could face some costly consequences.

In some limited cases, people under 59½ can avoid the early withdrawal penalty (although not the applicable taxes) on earnings. You can, for example, pull out money to cover the costs of certain education expenses or to pay for a first-time home purchase.

6. Breaking the Rollover Rules

It used to be that you could do an IRA rollover only once in a calendar year, but that changed in 2015. Now, the government restricts you from doing more than one rollover in a 365-day period—even if they occur in two different years.

It’s a rule you’ll want to pay attention to because too many rollovers can trigger a big tax bill. “Some people can lose their entire IRA because they did two rollovers in a year and didn’t realize it," says Ed Slott, author of “The Retirement Savings Tax Bomb...and How to Defuse It.”

There are some exceptions, as in the case of 60-day rollovers from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. Also, the 365-day rule doesn’t apply to the direct transfer of funds between two IRA trustees, which the IRS does not consider a rollover.

7. Rolling Over the Money Yourself

There are two basic ways to roll over funds from one qualified retirement savings account, like a traditional IRA or a 401(k), into a Roth: direct and indirect.

In a direct rollover, your money is either transferred from one account to the other electronically or you receive a check made out in the name of the new account and deliver it. With an indirect rollover, you take possession of the money from the old account and deposit it into the new one yourself.

It's best to avoid this latter move because so many things can go wrong. The most common mistake people make is missing the 60-day deadline to roll over the money because they used the cash for something else and didn’t have enough to make the full contribution on time. Sometimes, people simply forget.

If you do choose to do it yourself anyhow, be meticulous about documenting the rollover in case the IRS questions it. If you can’t prove you deposited the money in time, you'll have to pay taxes and penalties on it.

8. Not Considering a Backdoor Roth IRA

If you make too much money to contribute to a Roth, all is not lost. You could instead contribute to a nondeductible IRA, which is available to anyone no matter how much they make. (This contribution is made with after-tax dollars, money that has already been taxed.) Then, using a tax strategy called a backdoor Roth IRA, you can convert that money into a Roth IRA.

To avoid tax complications, you should quickly convert the nondeductible IRA into a Roth IRA before there are any earnings on the money. Advisors recommend that you deposit the money into a low-interest-earning IRA account initially to minimize the chance it will earn much before you transfer it.

There is also another tax trap you need to consider: If you have a traditional, deductible IRA or a 401(k) with your employer, you could end up with a hefty tax bill due to the complicated rules on converting other IRAs to Roths

You also have the option of converting an existing 401(k) or a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, using the same backdoor strategy. The advantage of converting is that any earnings after the Roth conversion will no longer be taxable when you withdraw money during retirement. The disadvantage is that you must pay tax based on your current earnings for any money you convert.

“In general, the longer the time horizon and the higher the likelihood for a higher projected income tax bracket in retirement, the more likely a conversion will work in an investor’s favor,” says Mark Hebner, founder, and president of Index Fund Advisors, Inc., Irvine, Calif.

If you want to use this strategy, plan to work with a financial advisor who is familiar with all the rules so you don’t make an expensive mistake.

9. Forgetting Your Beneficiary List

All too often, Roth IRA owners forget to list primary and contingent beneficiaries for their account—and that can be a huge mistake. If the account is simply made payable to the IRA owner’s estate, it will have to go through the probate process. Translation: more complications, greater delay, and bigger attorney fees.

Once you name beneficiaries, be sure to review them periodically and make any changes or updates. That’s especially important if you and your spouse part ways. A divorce decree by itself won’t prevent a former spouse from getting the assets if they are still listed as a beneficiary.

10. Failing to Withdraw Inherited Roth Money

This rule is for the beneficiaries. Unlike the original owner of a Roth IRA and their spouse, other beneficiaries must take required minimum distributions (RMDs). So if you inherit a Roth IRA from someone besides your spouse, you will have to start making withdrawals from it, similar to those of a traditional IRA or 401(k). The good news is that no tax is due on the money if the account is over five years old.

There are several ways to take withdrawals. One method is to spread them over the beneficiary's life expectancy, which can allow the account to continue to grow, tax-free, for a longer period. Otherwise, all of the money must be withdrawn within the five-year period following the original owner's death.

The tax penalty for not following the RMD rules can be as high as 50% of the amount that was supposed to have been taken out.

When you inherit a Roth IRA as a non-spouse beneficiary, you can roll it over into a new, inherited IRA account. But don't put the account in your own name. The account title should read: “[Owner’s name], deceased [date of death], IRA FBO [your name], Beneficiary” (FBO means for “the benefit of”). If you put the account in your name, this is treated as a distribution, and all of the funds are immediately reported; it’s very difficult to undo this error.

11. Skipping a Roth Since You Already Have a 401(k)

The original goal of the IRA was to provide an investment vehicle for Americans who didn’t have a retirement plan through an employer. But there’s nothing in the laws preventing you from using both.

In fact, financial planners often suggest funding a Roth IRA once you’ve contributed enough to your 401(k) to get your employer’s full matching contribution. At that point, Roth IRAs often have clear upsides, such as more investment options and greater tax flexibility in retirement.

The Bottom Line

Having a Roth IRA can provide a bonanza of retirement benefits for both you and your heirs. But pay attention to the rules so you don't jeopardize your account's tax-free status. If you’re looking to get started funding an IRA, Investopedia has created a list of the best brokers for IRAs.