How the Ultrawealthy Have Exploited Roth IRAs

Some accounts reportedly shelter many millions—or even billions—of dollars

When individual retirement accounts (IRAs) were first introduced almost half a century ago, they were intended to help everyday Americans set some money aside for their retirement years. But the tax incentives that the new accounts provided weren’t lost on the rich or their accountants.

In recent decades, with the advent of the Roth IRA and relaxed restrictions on IRA rollovers, ultrawealthy Americans have reportedly built tax-sheltered accounts worth many millions—or even billions—of dollars. Here is how that happened. 

 

Key Takeaways

  • Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) were introduced in the 1970s as a way for workers without pensions to set some money aside for retirement and get a tax deduction for their contributions.
  • The Roth IRA was added in 1997. Unlike the traditional IRA, Roth IRAs offered no tax breaks for contributions but allowed for tax-free withdrawals later.
  • While people with incomes over a certain amount are ineligible to contribute directly to a Roth IRA, they can contribute to a traditional IRA, then roll over that money into a Roth.
  • That strategy, called a backdoor Roth IRA, has allowed some wealthy Americas to build Roth IRA accounts with multimillion-dollar balances that will never be taxed.

IRAs Were Controversial from the Start

IRAs first became available in the early 1970s, made possible by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974. Workers could put up to $1,500 of their income into an IRA each year and pay no tax on the money until they later withdrew it.

Initially, IRAs were limited to people without retirement plans at work, but that changed in 1981, when the Economic Recovery Tax Act opened them up to all workers and their spouses. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 then tightened the rules, setting income limits for tax-deductible contributions, based on whether the employee had access to a retirement plan at work. The new rules significantly reduced the number of people who could, and did, contribute to IRAs. 

As commonplace as they seem today, IRAs were controversial in those early decades. Opponents argued that they gave a needless tax break to middle- and high-income Americans at the general public’s (and the U.S. Treasury’s) expense. As The Washington Post summed up the argument in 1989, IRAs “simply rewarded people pretty far up the income scale for doing something they would have done anyway.”

Enter the Roth IRA

By 1991, however, lawmakers had begun to discuss adding a second kind of IRA: the back-loaded or “Super IRA,” which—unlike existing IRAs—would provide no immediate tax deduction but allow for tax-free withdrawals in future years. Perhaps not surprisingly, that concept was controversial, too.

Six years later, however, the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 introduced just such an IRA. It came to be known as the Roth IRA, in honor of longtime IRA advocate William V. Roth Jr., then a Republican U.S. senator from Delaware.

Americans could open a Roth IRA in two ways: through annual contributions, much like a traditional IRA (but without a tax deduction), or by converting all or part of an existing traditional IRA into a Roth (and paying tax on the amount that they converted). In both cases, the law set income limits on who was eligible.

In 2010, however, the income limits on IRA conversions were lifted.

Anyone, no matter how wealthy, could convert a traditional IRA into a Roth if they were willing to pay the taxes. That led to the invention of the backdoor Roth IRA. Taxpayers who had too much income to contribute directly to a Roth could contribute to a traditional IRA, then roll over the money into a Roth. (There are no income limits on contributing to a traditional IRA today, although the extent to which a contribution is deductible depends on both the person’s income and whether they’re covered by another retirement plan at work.)

Multimillion-Dollar Roth IRAs

A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report delivered the surprising news that, as of 2011, some U.S. taxpayers had managed to accumulate $5 million or more in their IRAs. “A small number of individuals have found IRAs, and in particular Roth IRAs, to be an advantageous investment vehicle for purchasing disproportionately profitable assets at a low initial value, or transferring such assets from employer-sponsored plans, without paying more than a nominal amount of tax on their gains,” the GAO explained.

The report added, “The use of IRAs permits these individuals to accumulate far more in resources, under favorable tax treatment, than may be reasonably necessary to support them in retirement.”

In response, the Senate Finance Committee in 2016 proposed the Retirement Improvements and Savings Enhancements (RISE) Act, which would have, among other things, eliminated all Roth IRA conversions—not only from traditional IRAs but also from employer-sponsored plans like 401(k)s. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee’s ranking member, said, “It’s time to face the fact that our tax code needs a dose of fairness when it comes to retirement savings, and that starts with cracking down on massive Roth IRA accounts built on assets from sweetheart, inside deals.”

The RISE Act failed to get off the ground, but the idea of restricting Roth IRA conversions lived on.

A $5 Billion Roth IRA

In July 2021, the Senate Finance Committee released a report showing that as of 2019, the number of taxpayers with at least $5 million in their IRAs had more than tripled since the 2014 GAO report. The numbers were still relatively small—about 28,000 taxpayers—but revealing. Of the 497 individuals with IRAs worth $25 million or more, the average account balance was greater than $150 million. The report called the accounts “mega IRAs.”

The Senate committee report came in the wake of a June 2021 ProPublica article based on what it said was tax return data from “thousands of the country’s wealthiest people.” It singled out tech investor Peter Thiel as an example, saying that over 20 years, he had managed to build a Roth IRA worth $5 billion.

ProPublica maintained that Thiel and others had “made an end run around the rules,” and it explained how that could be accomplished:

“Open a Roth with $2,000 or less. Get a sweetheart deal to buy a stake in a startup that has a good chance of one day exploding in value. Pay just fractions of a penny per share, a price low enough to buy huge numbers of shares. Watch as all the gains on that stock—no matter how giant—are shielded from taxes forever, as long as the IRA remains untouched until age 59 and a half. Then use the proceeds, still inside the Roth, to make other investments.”

The article’s headline crowned Thiel “Lord of the Roths.” It also showed that the back door isn’t the only route to great Roth IRA wealth, for those who find the right startup shares to buy for their accounts in a year when their incomes qualify them to invest in a Roth.

The Biden Administration Takes Aim

In 2021, the Biden administration took up the cause, making several IRA-related provisions part of its Build Back Better framework. That November, the House passed its version of the Build Back Better Act.

For example, the House act would: 

  • Have prohibited the rollover of after-tax contributions from traditional to Roth IRAs after Dec. 31, 2021. That would have effectively ended backdoor Roths that are funded by contributions to nondeductible IRAs.
  • Have eliminated all Roth IRA conversions by “high-income” taxpayers as of Dec. 31, 2031. That provision would totally close the backdoor strategy for such taxpayers.
  • Increase the amount of required minimum distributions for high-income taxpayers with IRAs in excess of certain limits as of Dec. 31, 2028.

As of early 2022, the Senate has yet to pass a version of the Build Back Better Act—and its doing so is widely viewed as unlikely.

For now, the law remains unchanged. As another ProPublica headline last summer put it, “The Ultrawealthy Have Hijacked Roth IRAs.” This flight path to wealth looks likely to stay unobstructed for some time to come.

What’s the difference between individual retirement account (IRA) types: Roth and traditional?

The major difference is how the two individual retirement account (IRA) types are taxed. Contributions to a traditional IRA are eligible for an up-front tax deduction, but withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. With a Roth IRA, there’s no up-front tax deduction, but withdrawals are tax free, subject to certain rules.

What are the limits on Roth IRA contributions?

In 2022, total IRA contributions are limited to $6,000 for anyone under age 50 and $7,000 for those 50 and older. That’s per person; married couples can each have an IRA, effectively doubling the amount. There are also income limits on who is eligible for a Roth IRA.

What is a backdoor Roth IRA?

With a backdoor Roth IRA, someone whose income is too high to qualify for a Roth IRA first opens a traditional IRA (for which there are no income limits), then converts that account into a Roth IRA. There are also no income limits for Roth IRA conversions.

The Bottom Line

IRAs, which were created to encourage Americans with modest incomes to save for retirement, have since become a way for the ultrawealthy to enlarge their wealth and shield it from taxation. That has been particularly true with Roth IRAs. Congress has attempted to clamp down on practices such as backdoor IRAs through new legislation, but with little success to date.

Article Sources

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  1. Congressional Research Service. “Traditional and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): A Primer,” Page 21.

  2. Congressional Research Service. “Individual Retirement Account (IRA) Ownership: Data and Policy Issues,” Page 4 (Page 8 of PDF).

  3. National Bureau of Economic Research. “Sources of IRA Saving,” Page 25 (Page 2 of PDF).

  4. The Washington Post. “Dusting Off IRAs.”

  5. The Roanoke Times, via Virginia Tech Scholarly Communication University Libraries. “Majority of Senators Backs ‘Super IRA’ Bill.”

  6. U.S. Congress. “Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997,” Pages 825–827 (Pages 39–41 of PDF).

  7. U.S. Congress. “H.R.4297 — Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005,” Pages 301–303 (Pages 305–307 of PDF).

  8. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics — IRA Contribution Limits.”

  9. U.S. Government Accountability Office. “Individual Retirement Accounts: IRS Could Bolster Enforcement on Multimillion Dollar Accounts, but More Direction from Congress Is Needed,” Pages 15, 17–18, and 41 (Pages 21, 23–24, and 47 of PDF).

  10. U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. “Wyden Proposal Would Crack Down on Tax Avoidance in Retirement Plans, Create New Opportunities for Working Americans to Save.”

  11. U.S. Senate Committee on Finance. “Wyden, Neal Release New Data Showing Explosion in Use of Mega-IRA Accounts by Wealthy.”

  12. ProPublica. “Lord of the Roths: How Tech Mogul Peter Thiel Turned a Retirement Account for the Middle Class Into a $5 Billion Tax-Free Piggy Bank.”

  13. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 117th Congress, First Session, Vol. 167, No. 201. “Sec. 138311. Tax Treatment of Rollovers to Roth IRAs and Accounts.,” Pages 184–185.

  14. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 117th Congress, First Session, Vol. 167, No. 201. “Sec. 138302. Increase in Minimum Required Distributions for High-Income Taxpayers with Large Retirement Account Balances.,” Pages 183–184.

  15. NBC News. “Manchin Says Build Back Better Is ‘Dead.’ Here’s What He Might Resurrect.

  16. ProPublica. “The Ultrawealthy Have Hijacked Roth IRAs. The Senate Finance Chair Is Eyeing a Crackdown.

  17. Internal Revenue Service. “Traditional and Roth IRAs.”

  18. Congressional Research Service. “Rollovers and Conversions to Roth IRAs and Designated Roth Accounts: Proposed Changes in Budget Reconciliation,” Page 2.

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