High-income earners can’t contribute directly to a Roth IRA. But thanks to a tax loophole, they can still make contributions indirectly. If you qualify to take advantage of this tax loophole, you should. The government clearly sanctioned the practice of contributing to a Roth through the backdoor. If you take advantage and maximize your retirement savings, you can save tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on taxes over the years. Keep reading to find out more about this loophole and the benefits of setting up a backdoor Roth IRA.

Key Takeaways

  • High-income earners who can’t contribute directly to a Roth IRA may be able to contribute indirectly via a backdoor Roth and maximize their retirement savings.
  • Roth IRAs are attractive because they don’t have RMDs, and the distributions are tax-free.
  • The lack of RMDs in Roth IRAs also simplifies the record-keeping and tax preparation processes.
  • A backdoor Roth can be created by first contributing to a traditional IRA and then immediately converting it to a Roth IRA (to avoid paying taxes on any earnings or having earnings that put you over the contribution limit).
  • A backdoor Roth IRA may not be the best idea for those expecting to need in the next five years the money they’re contributing to the backdoor Roth.

Why Bother With a Backdoor Roth IRA?

Both Roth and traditional IRAs let your money grow within the account tax-free. However, Roth IRAs have a couple of advantages over traditional IRAs.

First, they don’t have required minimum distributions (RMDs). You can leave your money in your Roth for as long as you want, which means it can keep growing indefinitely. This characteristic may be valuable to you if you expect to have enough retirement income from another source, such as a 401(k), and you want to use your Roth as a bequest or an inheritance.

The lack of RMDs also simplifies one aspect of your future financial decision-making, record-keeping, and tax preparation. It will save you time and headaches in retirement when you’d rather be enjoying your free time.

Second, Roth distributions—which include earnings on your contributions—are not taxable. Future tax rates may be higher than current tax rates, so some people would rather pay taxes on their retirement account contributions, as one does with a Roth than on their distributions, as one does with a traditional IRA or 401(k). Other people want to hedge their bets by making both pretax and post-tax contributions, so they have a position in both options.

In a Roth conversion, you don’t really turn your traditional IRA into a Roth IRA; you simply move funds from one account to the other.

How to Create a Backdoor Roth IRA

In 2021, single taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $125,000 face lower Roth IRA contribution limits as their income increases. At $140,000, they can’t contribute at all.

Married taxpayers are further disadvantaged in that their limits aren’t double the single limits. Instead, their ability to contribute phases out with a MAGI of $198,000 and terminates at $208,000.

A traditional IRA doesn’t limit or prevent people with higher incomes from contributing. The backdoor Roth takes advantage of this fact.

Step 1. Contribute to a Traditional IRA

For 2021, you can contribute the lesser of your earned income or $6,000. A working spouse can also contribute up to $6,000 more for a nonworking (or low-earning) spouse, so long as both spouses’ combined contributions (up to $12,000) don’t exceed the working spouse’s income (or both spouse’s incomes).

Individuals who are 50 or older get to make an extra $1,000 in catch-up contributions each year, meaning that a married couple could each put $7,000 in a traditional IRA for 2021, for a total of $14,000, as long as each spouse is at least 50.

If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth, then your income is also too high to deduct your traditional IRA contributions from your tax bill if you or your spouse contributes to a retirement plan at work. If that’s your situation, you will already be putting after-tax dollars into your traditional IRA.

Step 2. Immediately Convert Your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA

Why do you want to do this step immediately? Because if you leave the money in your traditional IRA, you could have earnings, and if you have earnings, you have to pay taxes on those earnings when you do your conversion. If you accumulate enough earnings and then convert your entire account balance, you’ll have an excess contribution you will have to correct by paying taxes. Any untaxed amounts in the traditional IRA will result in taxation after the conversion. Keep life simple: Don’t procrastinate on your conversion.

Step 3. Repeat the Process, if You Wish

Each year in which you can’t fully contribute to a Roth IRA by the regular, front-door way, take advantage of the backdoor Roth.

72

The age at which you must take RMDs from a traditional IRA.

Follow the Rules

You’ll want to make sure that you abide by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules on your Roth IRA. Here are four tips to help you make sure you do.

  1. If you already have a traditional IRA to which you made tax-deductible contributions, make sure to follow the pro-rata rule. The easiest way to avoid dealing with this rule is to have a zero balance in all traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs, and SIMPLE IRAs.
  2. Don’t remove the converted funds from your Roth IRA for at least five years if you are younger than 59½. If you remove them sooner, you will have to pay a 10% penalty unless you qualify for one of the limited exceptions.
  3. Don’t let your backdoor contribution fall back into your own hands between contributing it to a traditional IRA and moving it to a Roth IRA. You could end up with an unexpected tax bill. Instead, do a trustee-to-trustee transfer (if your traditional and Roth IRAs are not at the same financial institution) or a same-trustee transfer (if both IRAs are at the same institution).
  4. Fill out IRS Form 8606, Nondeductible IRAs, when you file your tax return.

When to Avoid a Backdoor Roth IRA

Remember, a backdoor Roth IRA isn't for everyone. If you don't know the basics, it's bound to backfire. Here are some of the circumstances under which it might not be a good idea to do a backdoor Roth yourself:

  • You expect to need the money you’re contributing to the backdoor Roth in the next five years. You’ll have to pay a 10% penalty if you withdraw it.
  • You aren’t confident that you can do the process correctly and avoid costly tax errors. (If that’s the case, ask a financial planner or tax advisor for help.)
  • You think the pro-rata rule applies to your situation, but you don’t understand how to do the math to calculate your tax liability. (Again, this is just a DIY problem. Ask a professional for help.)
  • You’ve rolled a 401(k) balance from an old employer into an IRA this year. In that case, if you also do a backdoor Roth, you’ll end up owing taxes.

Backdoor IRA FAQs

What Is a Backdoor IRA?

A backdoor IRA isn't an official retirement account, but it is sanctioned by the IRS. It allows individuals to fund a Roth IRA even when their income is higher than the maximum set by the IRS.

How Does a Backdoor IRA Work?

Taxpayers first make contributions to a traditional IRA account. That account is then immediately converted to a Roth IRA. This allows the individual to avoid paying any taxes on earnings. You can repeat the process every year your income doesn't allow you to contribute to a regular Roth IRA.

Is a Backdoor IRA Worth It?

Yes. Roth IRAs don't have required minimum distributions, which means you can leave your money in the account and let it grow. And the money you do withdraw isn't taxable, which means you pay on the contributions—not the distributions themselves. If you leave the money in a traditional IRA, any earnings are subject to taxes. Just make sure you know the rules so you don't end up paying more than you save.

Can You Still Do a Backdoor Roth IRA in 2020?

You can still do a backdoor Roth IRA in 2020, as long as you haven't filed your 2020 taxes. The deadline to convert to a backdoor IRA—and to file your taxes—is April 15, 2021.

How Much Can You Backdoor Into a Roth IRA?

You're allowed to contribute the lesser of your earned income or $6,000 in a traditional IRA, which can then be converted to a backdoor Roth IRA. If you're 50 or older, you can also make an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 each year.

The Bottom Line

Contributing to a Roth IRA through the backdoor is more complicated than contributing the straightforward way, but it’s your only option if your income exceeds IRS limits. It’s worth the extra steps for many people because a Roth has extra tax benefits that a traditional IRA does not. For help in executing your backdoor Roth IRA contribution correctly, consult a financial planner or tax advisor.