A workaround for the Roth IRA income restrictions enables wealthier individuals to to earn tax-free income. But how long will that back door remain open?
The Roth IRA is that rare prize in the U.S. Tax code: a way to earn tax-free income. Savers using these accounts withdraw their investment gains completely tax-free in retirement. The government designed this generous tax break for the middle class, which is why the Roth has strict income limits for who can use it. In 2022, you cannot contribute directly to a Roth IRA if you're single and have a modified adjusted gross income of more than $144,000 or are married with joint modified AGI over $214,000.
Wealthier investors, however, can still access these accounts indirectly through a backdoor Roth IRA. "This strategy gives a workaround for the Roth IRA income restrictions," says Rob Burnette, a financial adviser and tax preparer at Outlook Financial Center in Troy, Ohio. At least it does for now. "The IRS has said they're OK with this move short of new legislation formally blocking it," says Wade Pfau, a professor of retirement income at The American College of Financial Services.
Reports of billionaires funding Roths through the back door put this strategy on Congress's radar last year, with some Democratic lawmakers looking to restrict the practice or even abolish it altogether. But the hubbub also has prompted upper-middle-class families to wonder if backdoor Roths should play a role in their financial planning.
Beware of the Pro-Rata Rule
A backdoor Roth IRA is a two-step process. First, you open a traditional IRA using after-tax dollars instead of the pre-tax money you usually fund these accounts with to get a deduction. Nondeductible contributions are not only simpler for the backdoor strategy but also circumvent the income limits for deductible traditional IRA contributions, which are even more restrictive than those for a Roth if you have a retirement plan at work and either you or your employer contributed to it. Second, you convert the traditional IRA to a Roth, but because none of the contributions were deductible, no income tax is owed on the conversion. You report to the IRS that your contributions were nondeductible using Tax Form 8606 when you file your return.
There are no income limits for setting up nondeductible IRAs or making a Roth conversion, so the backdoor strategy is available to everyone. Contributions through the back door have the same annual maximums in 2022 as other IRAs: $6,000 for people younger than 50 and $7,000 for those 50 or older, provided they have at least that amount in earned income. A backdoor Roth IRA conversion can be made every year, but if you've contributed pre-tax money to a traditional IRA in the past, a tax law called the pro-rata rule complicates things.
Under the pro-rata rule for Roth conversions, the IRS looks at the proportion of pre-tax versus after-tax dollars in your traditional IRA. This is the percentage that will be taxable when you make a backdoor Roth conversion.
For example, let's say you have $95,000 of pre-tax funds in a traditional IRA and you contribute another $5,000 of nondeductible money. You might think that you could just convert the $5,000 of nondeductible money and avoid owing any additional taxes. Instead, thanks to the pro rata rule, the IRS considers 95% of each dollar you convert as taxable ($95,000/$100,000). Only $250 of your $5,000 conversion in this instance is tax-free while the rest is taxed as income. Your taxable income for the year would also increase by the amount of the taxable conversion.
An Effective Strategy for Some
For this reason, the backdoor Roth IRA strategy is most tax-effective for those who haven't already funded a traditional IRA with pre-tax dollars. The IRS looks at all your IRAs in aggregate. If you have an existing traditional IRA with Schwab, you can't dodge the taxes by opening a new IRA with Vanguard.
Pfau warns that if you have your money in an old workplace plan, like a 401(k), "people can really mess themselves up by making a large 401(k) rollover into a traditional IRA." Because of the pro-rata rule, moving over a large pre-tax retirement balance will hamper your ability to make tax-free transfers in the future for a backdoor Roth IRA.
If you plan on using this strategy, leave the funds in your old workplace retirement plan, or if you're still working, transfer the balance to a new employer's retirement plan. You could also ask your employer if you can transfer your pre-tax dollars in a traditional IRA to your workplace plan to get around the pro-rata rule.
Because of the rule, keep your nondeductible funds in cash in the traditional IRA and don't invest until after you've made the conversion. Otherwise, you'll owe income tax on the investment gains from the nondeductible funds when you convert to the Roth. That's why Pfau recommends making your backdoor Roth conversion all at once. "Put the entire $6,000 or $7,000 in your account in January and make the conversion right away."
Withdrawals and Taxes
Other tax rules to watch out for involve withdrawals. When you fund a Roth IRA with direct contributions, you must wait at least five years and until age 59½ to take out your investment gains tax-free. Your contributions can be withdrawn tax-free anytime.
With a Roth conversion, you must hold the account for at least five years or until age 59½, whichever comes first, to avoid a 10% early withdrawal penalty that is applied to every dollar you convert, both contributions and gains. You also must wait five years for tax-free withdrawals of your gains, regardless of your age.
This tax rule gets complicated when you make multiple backdoor conversions. "Every conversion has its own five-year clock," says Samuel Eberts, a financial adviser and registered financial consultant with Dugan Brown in Columbus, Ohio. He recommends working with a tax professional to track your conversions and investment gains so you can figure out when and how much you can take out tax- and penalty-free.
Despite those complications, Eberts believes it's worth having at least some retirement savings in a tax-free account for greater tax flexibility in retirement. Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth accounts don't require minimum withdrawals at age 72. You can hold onto those retirement savings for the future or leave them as an inheritance. Meanwhile, if you need the money in retirement, the withdrawals won't add to your taxable income, which can affect government benefits. "Distributions from a Roth IRA don't count toward whether you owe taxes on your Social Security or [pay] extra for your Medicare premiums," says Pfau.
A Washington Curve Ball
If you think the backdoor Roth IRA strategy sounds suspiciously like a giant tax loophole, some in Congress might agree with you, and in 2021 a Democratic-controlled House passed a bill that would have eliminated backdoor Roth contributions starting this year. "They felt high-income earners were exploiting them," says Eberts. "They wanted to make sure everyone was paying their proper taxes, especially the rich."
That same bill, which was part of the Build Back Better legislation, also would have banned Roth conversions for high-income taxpayers, starting in 2032, but the legislation died in the Senate. The backdoor Roth IRA strategy looks safe for now. What happens next is anyone's guess. "Trying to predict what Congress is going to do is like playing with the old magic eight ball. I don't think BBB will pass before the midterms," says Burnette. Nevertheless, he warns that when Congress decides to act, it can do so quickly.
Pfau believes that if Congress does abolish the backdoor Roth IRA, the law is unlikely to be retroactive and wouldn't cancel out transactions that already happened. The possibility of such a grandfather clause could be an incentive to pursue a backdoor Roth sooner rather than later. "As long as any future law is not retroactive, you'll be better off doing it now while you still can," says Pfau.