Roth IRAs, created in 1997 as part of the Taxpayer Relief Act, represented an entirely new savings opportunity–the ability to make after-tax contributions that could, if certain conditions were met, grow entirely free of federal income taxes.
These new savings vehicles were essentially the inverse of traditional IRAs, where you could make deductible contributions but distributions would be fully taxable. The law also allowed taxpayers to “convert” traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs by paying income taxes on the amount converted in the year of conversion.
Unfortunately, the law contained two provisions that limited the ability of high-income taxpayers to participate in the Roth revolution. First, the annual contributions an individual could make to a Roth IRA were reduced or eliminated if his or her income exceeded certain levels. Second, individuals with incomes of $100,000 or more, or whose tax filing status was married filing separately, were prohibited from converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
In 2005, however, Congress passed the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act (TIPRA), which repealed the second barrier, allowing anyone to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA–starting in 2010–regardless of income level or marital status. But TIPRA did not repeal the provision that limited the ability to make annual Roth contributions based on income. The current limits are set forth in the table below:
Phaseout ranges for determining ability to fund a Roth IRA in 2016*
Single/head of household $117,000-$132,000
Married filing jointly $184,000-$194,000
Married filing separately $0-$10,000
*Applies to modified adjusted gross income (MAGI)
Through the back door…
Repeal of the provisions limiting conversions created an obvious opportunity for high-income taxpayers who wanted to make annual Roth contributions but couldn’t because of the income limits. Those taxpayers (who would also run afoul of similar income limits that prohibited them from making deductible contributions to traditional IRAs) could simply make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA and then immediately convert that traditional IRA to a Roth IRA–a “back door” Roth IRA.
The IRS is always at the front door…
For taxpayers who have no other traditional IRAs, establishment of the back-door Roth IRA is essentially tax free. Income tax is payable on the earnings, if any, that the traditional IRA generates until the Roth conversion is complete. However, assuming the contribution and conversion are done in tandem, the tax impact should be nominal. (The 10% penalty tax for distributions prior to age 59½ generally doesn’t apply to taxable conversions.)
But if a taxpayer owns other traditional IRAs at the time of conversion, the tax calculation is a bit more complicated because of the so-called “IRA aggregation rule.” When calculating the tax impact of a distribution (including a conversion) from any traditional IRA, all traditional and SEP/SIMPLE IRAs a taxpayer owns (other than inherited IRAs) must be aggregated and treated as a single IRA.
For example, assume Jillian creates a back-door Roth IRA in 2016 by making a $5,500 contribution to a traditional IRA and then converting that IRA to a Roth IRA. She also has another traditional IRA that contains deductible contributions and earnings worth $20,000. Her total traditional IRA balance prior to the conversion is therefore $25,500 ($20,000 taxable and $5,500 nontaxable).
She has a distribution (conversion) of $5,500: 78.4% of that distribution ($20,000/$25,500) is considered taxable ($4,313.73), and 21.6% of that distribution ($5,500/$25,500) is considered nontaxable ($1,186.27).
Note: These tax calculations can be complicated. Fortunately, the IRS has provided a worksheet (Form 8606) for calculating the taxable portion of a conversion.
There’s also a side door…
Let’s assume Jillian in the example above isn’t thrilled about having to pay any income tax on the Roth conversion. Is there anything she can do about it?
One strategy to reduce or eliminate the conversion tax is to transfer the taxable amount in the traditional IRAs ($20,000 in our example) to an employer qualified plan like a 401(k) prior to establishing the back-door Roth IRA, leaving the traditional IRAs holding only after-tax dollars. Many 401(k) plans accept incoming rollovers. Check with your plan administrator.