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Updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2019
Whether you’re a freelancer or a salaried employee looking to supplement a company-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k), an individual retirement account (IRA) can be a powerful tool to help you reach your financial goals. These self-directed retirement funds are readily available through commercial brokerages and can make investing accessible regardless of your employment situation.
There are two types of IRAs: Roth and traditional. With traditional IRAs, contributions are tax-deductible, but the distributions you make later — including earned appreciation from compound interest — will be taxed. The opposite applies to Roth IRAs. Roth IRA contributions are taxed today, but they grow tax-free, which means you get to make the most of your gains in retirement. Furthermore, Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs), which means you can let your contributions earn interest indefinitely.
However, all IRAs are subject to certain restrictions and limitations by the IRS. For instance, you can fund an IRA only up to the specified contribution limit ($6,000 in 2021), and Roths are available only to those who make less than a certain income threshold. For 2019, the income threshold is $208,000 for those who are married and filing jointly and $140,000 for single filers. So what’s a high earner who wants to benefit from the unique tax advantages of a Roth account to do?
Enter the Roth IRA conversion, also known as the “backdoor Roth.”
What is a backdoor Roth IRA?
A backdoor Roth is a basically a quasi loophole — but a totally legal one. The process is simple: You open a traditional, nondeductible IRA, make after-tax contributions and then transfer the assets to a Roth afterward.
This allows those who earn more than the income maximum set by the IRS to access the tax benefits of a Roth even though they’re ineligible to directly fund a Roth IRA.
It may sound sneaky, but a backdoor Roth IRA is totally legal. However, converting a traditional IRA to a Roth doesn’t mean you get to skip paying taxes entirely, and there are some important Roth conversion rules to consider before you take on this financial strategy.
Can you avoid taxes with a backdoor Roth IRA?
Whether you’re contributing to a traditional or a Roth IRA, you’re still responsible for taxes. The only question is when you’ll have to pay them. Remember that traditional IRA contributions are tax-deductible today but taxed when you make distributions. Roth contributions will count toward your taxes this year but can grow tax-free thereafter.
In order to take a backdoor Roth, however, you must fund a nondeductible traditional IRA in the first place. That means you’ll already pay taxes on your contributions. Then, when you convert that traditional IRA to a Roth, you’ll be responsible for the taxes on any gains, which will be allowed to grow tax-free thereafter (just like in any Roth account).
If your newly converted Roth IRA is the only one you have, your tax liability will be triggered just that once — at the time of the transfer. If you have several IRAs or if the IRA you’re converting has been funded with both post-tax and pretax dollars, then things get a little bit more complicated. Your total tax liability will be calculated according to something called the pro rata rule.
What is the pro rata rule?
The pro rata rule is also known as the IRA aggregation rule or the “cream-in-your-coffee rule.”
It might seem complex at first, but the idea is actually pretty simple: If you have both pretax and post-tax contributions in your IRA accounts, all those funds must figure in when calculating your tax liability. In other words, they can’t be separated out into categories, just like you can’t separate the cream from your coffee once you add it.
Instead, you’ll be required to pay income tax on a pro rata share of both. Once again, the question isn’t if you’re going to pay taxes; it’s when you will pay taxes.
For instance, let’s say you contribute the $6,000 maximum to a nondeductible, traditional IRA with the intention to take the backdoor Roth option. But you also have a rollover IRA with $94,000 in it, which you transferred from a 401(k) (so it was funded with pretax, deductible contributions). That means 94% of the total value of your IRA accounts would be subject to income tax at the time you make the Roth conversion. Here’s the math:
Total value of both accounts: $100,000
Pretax contribution: $94,000
After-tax contribution: $6,000
$6,000 ÷ $100,000 (expressed as percentage) = 6%
$6,000 (the amount converted) x 6% = $360 converted tax-free
$6,000 – $360 = $5,640 subject to income tax
However, once you pay the taxes on your contributions, you’re home free. You’ll be able to take tax-free distributions once you reach age 59 and a half as long as the account’s been open for at least five years.
Is a backdoor Roth IRA right for me?
Since the pro rata rule could complicate your conversion and trigger a heavy tax burden, Malik S. Lee, founder of Felton & Peel Wealth Management, said the backdoor Roth IRA is best for high earners who don’t yet have any IRA assets.
“Ideally, this is not really a strategy you want to do when you have a large number of IRAs already in place,” he said.
If you’re earning more than the listed limits, the backdoor Roth can help you diversify your retirement holdings or pass on nontaxable assets to your heirs. Since the taxes are already taken out, the Roth is especially useful for those who have a long time horizon in which money can grow.
Timing your backdoor Roth IRA conversion
Once you understand how to initiate a backdoor Roth IRA conversion — and what your tax liability will be when you do — there’s another important issue to consider: timing. You’ll need to pay your taxes when you make the conversion.
If you know you’re going for the backdoor option, Lee suggested you take action quickly, leaving the assets in cash so you can execute the transfer as soon as possible. “I don’t really see a benefit in waiting,” he said, explaining that he usually initiates the transfer “as soon as the check clears.”
After all, if you do invest the money while it’s still in a traditional IRA, you may end up paying taxes on those gains.
The bottom line
Although there’s no way to avoid taxes entirely, a backdoor Roth IRA is a good option for high earners who want to take advantage of the unique benefits of a Roth account. Not only will your distributions come tax-free when you reach retirement, but you’ll also be allowed to let the money grow indefinitely (as opposed to being subject to RMDs).
If a backdoor Roth doesn’t sound like the right path for your personal financial goals, there are lots of other options to help high-income savers fund their retirement. For example, you might ask your employer if it offers a Roth 401(k) option or open a SEP IRA, which features much higher contribution limits: up to $58,000 or 25% of your compensation for 2021.