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Updated on Monday, January 13, 2020
A spousal IRA is an investment strategy used by married couples to save for retirement. There is no separate type of individual retirement account called a “spousal IRA” — rather, it’s just a traditional IRA for a married person who isn’t earning an income. IRS rules allow spouses who aren’t earning income, for whatever reason, to still use the tax advantages of saving and investing money in an IRA to accumulate a nest egg for retirement.
What is a spousal IRA?
The IRS requires individuals to report annual income in order to fund an IRA — with the exception of a spouse who isn’t earning an income, but is married to someone who is. If both partners in the marriage file taxes jointly, the IRS lets each partner have their own IRA. Married couples who file taxes separately are not eligible for the spousal IRAs approach.
According to Janice M. Cackowski, a financial advisor with providence Wealth Partners in Ohio, the IRS looks at married couples who file jointly as one entity, and their combined income as one figure, so spousal IRAs allow them to put away twice as much.
“Spousal IRAs are terrific tools when one spouse is employed and the other is not,” said Cackowski. “It allows the spouse who is earning wages to deposit them an IRA for the benefit of the non-working spouse, essentially allowing each spouse to maximize their retirement savings.”
Basic spousal IRA rules
- The tax filing status of the couple must be “married filing jointly”
- The married couple does not co-own a spousal IRA — it is owned by and held in the name of the non-working spouse
- A spousal IRA can be a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA
- There is no longer an age limit for making contributions to a Traditional IRA, so you may keep adding money after age 70 ½, as has always been the case with a Roth IRA
Like any other IRA, married people making use of a spousal IRA strategy contribute funds to their separate accounts and invest the funds in stocks, bonds, CDs and other assets. Interest accumulates over the years, and the account grows either tax-free or tax-deferred (more on this in a bit).
For example, if you contribute $6,000 a year to your IRA starting at age 30 until you retire at age 65, the sum would grow to more than $700,000, assuming a 6% annual rate of return. This figure doesn’t account for taxes (so it’s not entirely exact), but it does show how the power of compound interest can work in your favor over time.
What are your spousal IRAs options?
Your spousal IRA can be either a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. The rules and contribution limits for spousal IRAs are no different than conventional versions of either account. Remember, the difference between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA comes down to when you can reap the tax benefits of each option, and Traditional IRAs may provide tax deduction benefits.
- Traditional IRA: Contributions to a Traditional IRA are made before you pay income tax. As such, you end up paying income taxes on all withdrawals — principal and interest earned — when you withdraw funds in retirement.
- Roth IRA: Contributions to a Roth IRA are made after you pay income taxes. Since you’ve already paid taxes upfront, money you withdraw in retirement is tax free.
Which should you choose? In general, if you’re in a lower tax bracket now than you expect to be when you retire, then a spousal Roth IRA may be more beneficial, as you may save money on taxes down the road. This decision is unique in each situation.
Spousal IRA contribution and income limits
For 2020 and 2021, the annual contribution limits for both Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs is $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re 50 or older. This is the core benefit of a spousal IRA: A married couple can potentially sock away a total of $12,000 into their IRAs.
There is no income threshold for contributing to a traditional IRA, while the limit for contributing to Roth IRAs is $206,000 for married couples filing jointly. Also, In addition, for both Roth IRAs and Traditional IRAs, the married couple must have taxable income that is equal to or greater than the total amount contributed to their IRAs.
Spousal IRA tax deductions
Couples can deduct their contributions to a Traditional IRA from their taxes, depending on two factors. The income tax deduction is reduced or eliminated entirely depending on the couple’s total income, or the earning spouse’s participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
If the spouse who works is covered by their employer’s retirement plan, the Traditional IRA income tax deduction is phased out when the couple’s income falls between $105,000 and $125,000, as of 2021. Incomes above $125,000 get no tax deduction.
However, if the spouse does not participate in an employer-sponsored retirement plan, the deduction phases out at an income level of $198,000, and is eliminated after income hits $208,000. There are also tax credits available — the Saver’s Credit — for married couples filing jointly who earn less than $66,000 a year.
Spousal IRA withdrawals
Because IRA funds are intended for use in retirement, withdrawing them before that time often comes with a penalty. For traditional IRAs, there’s a 10% penalty if you withdraw funds before age 59 ½, and you also must pay taxes on the money you withdraw. For Roth IRAs, you can withdraw the funds you contributed at any time penalty free, since you already paid taxes on them up front, but you’ll pay a 10% penalty on any earnings if you with withdraw them sooner than five years after the account was opened or before age 59 ½ (whichever is longer).
For both traditional and Roth IRAs, there are some exceptions to early withdrawal penalties for things including death, disabilities and a first-time home purchase.
Who should consider a spousal IRA?
Any family with a non-working spouse and disposal income for long-term savings that is looking to increase their retirement nest egg should consider a spousal IRA as a potential option.
According to Michelle Buonincontri, an Arizona-based certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst, spousal IRAs help protect the non-working spouse in the case their happily ever after doesn’t end quite so happily.
“Let’s face it, with 50% or more of first marriages ending in divorce, spousal IRAs are a great way to level the playing field by having retirement assets in the name of the spouse that does not have access to a retirement plan if a couple ever find themselves in a divorce situation,” she said.
Although retirement assets accumulated during the marriage are usually considered marital assets, Buonincontri suggested that “folks seem less emotional about letting the other spouse keep accounts titled in their own name and less tense during the marital settlement negotiation process.”
Spousal IRAs aren’t for all couples
This doesn’t mean contributing to a spousal IRA is right for every couple, however. While spousal IRAs are generally a positive investment, people need to take a hard look at their financial situation to make sure funds won’t be needed elsewhere.
Diane Pearson, a certified financial planner with Pearson Financial Planning in Pittsburgh, Penn., noted that a spousal IRA isn’t always the first move couples should make with disposable income.
She advised that couples should build their emergency fund and general savings before opting for a spousal IRA. Savers don’t want to set themselves up for additional taxes or early withdrawal tax penalties if they end up needing to pull funds out of an IRA to pay for near-term emergencies or a child’s education before age 59 1/2.
“Every situation is obviously different, but if an employer is offering the working spouse a match to a qualified retirement plan, and the individual instead decides to use their income to fund their non-working spouse’s IRA, they may be missing out on the employer’s matching contribution,” said Pearson.
How to open a spousal IRA
As we noted in the introduction, a spousal IRA is a strategy, not a distinct type of individual retirement account. Whether you choose to set up your spousal IRA as a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, you can do so through most banks, brokerage and wealth management firms, as well as robo-advisors.
How hands-on you want to be when it comes to managing your IRA will help you decide which route to go. While some providers will do all the work for you, you’ll pay for that help in the form of management fees, other brokers give you complete control over your portfolio and you save on fees.