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Basics of Backdoor Roth IRA Contributions

A backdoor Roth IRA presents a legal and valuable workaround to the income limitations associated with directly contributing to a Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA). This strategy allows high-income contributors to enjoy the Roth IRA's benefits, such as tax-free investment growth and withdrawals at retirement age.


In This Insight


What is a backdoor Roth IRA?

A backdoor Roth IRA is a legal strategy that allows individuals with high incomes to bypass income restrictions allowing them to benefit from the tax advantages of a Roth IRA. Through the use of a backdoor Roth IRA, investors can indirectly contribute funds to a Roth IRA, effectively sidestepping the usual income limits associated with Roth IRAs.


It's akin to entering through a 'backdoor', hence the strategy's moniker. This method involves contributing to a Traditional IRA, followed by converting those contributions to a Roth IRA. It's a workaround method for those who earn too much to contribute directly to a Roth IRA due to the Internal Revenue Service's (IRS) income limits. Executing a backdoor Roth IRA involves a straightforward process, but it is crucial to follow the steps in the correct order.


Step 1: First, an investor makes non-deductible contributions to a Traditional IRA. Unlike conventional IRA contributions, these are made with after-tax dollars.


Step 2: The investor then converts the a portion of their Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Bear in mind that this financial maneuver needs to be done judiciously and may entail tax implications depending on the individual's tax bracket and the total balance of their Traditional IRA accounts. Be sure to read the section on the "Pro Rata Rule" before performing a backdoor Roth IRA contribution. It's worth noting that a backdoor Roth IRA isn't a separate type of retirement account. Instead, it's a method for high-income earners to access the benefits of a Roth IRA despite income restrictions. It is not a formal, IRS-sanctioned type of account but an allowable, legal tactic according to the IRS's existing rules and procedures.


Recent IRS announcements suggest the agency does not plan to challenge the legality of this strategy, so investors can utilize this tactic with a sense of security. The possible tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals in retirement make the backdoor Roth IRA a powerful tool for high earners to consider in their retirement planning.


The backdoor Roth IRA is a legal mechanism enabling high-income individuals to exploit Roth IRA's tax benefits, circumventing income limitations by contributing first to a Traditional IRA and then converting it into a Roth IRA.

Income Limits for Roth IRA Contributions

The income limits for Roth IRA contributions in 2024 are $161,000 for single filers and $240,000 for married individuals filing jointly. If your income exceeds these limits, then a backdoor Roth IRA might be a good option for you.

A backdoor Roth IRA can be beneficial when your income exceeds these preset limits. By utilizing the backdoor strategy, higher-income earners can fund a Roth IRA indirectly, even if their income is over the direct contribution limit.


The backdoor Roth IRA strategy allows higher-income earners to bypass traditional income limits by transitioning contributions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, but it's important to understand the potential tax implications that could arise from this conversion.

How to contribute with a backdoor Roth IRA contribution

There are a few steps required to perform a backdoor Roth IRA contribution:

  1. You need to have a traditional IRA account open. This can be an individual account, small business account, or through your employer (such as a 401(k) plan).

  2. You need to have a Roth IRA account open. This also can be an individual account, small business account, or through your employer.

  3. Ensure you are adhering to all the rules to avoid penalties.

  4. Make a non-deductible contribution to your traditional IRA.

  5. Convert the non-deductible contribution in your traditional IRA to the Roth IRA. This is done by moving the non-deductible dollars to the Roth IRA and clearly documenting the process. This can generally be done online through your plan sponsor or broker.

Rules to avoid penalties

It is essential for anyone interested in a backdoor Roth IRA to be aware of certain rules to prevent penalties. One significant consideration is the pro-rata rule, a common stumbling block. If there are pre-tax dollars in an existing traditional IRA, SEP, or SIMPLE IRA, this rule could lead to potential tax liabilities.


The pro-rata rule dictates that when converting pre-tax IRA dollars to a Roth IRA, the conversion is prorated between pre-tax and post-tax dollars. Consequently, if your IRA accounts contain a significant amount of pre-tax dollars, you may end up owing income tax on a larger portion of the conversion than initially anticipated.


Consider a scenario where an individual possesses a Traditional IRA with a total balance of $50,000, of which $5,000 consists of non-deductible contributions. This amount, having been already subject to taxation, is exempt from further taxes by the Internal Revenue Service.


When performing a backdoor Roth conversion, it's important to note that you cannot simply move the $5,000 of non-deductible contributions from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.


Instead, when rolling the $5,000 over to the Roth IRA, the IRS calculates the amount of non-deductible dollars on a pro rata basis using the following formula:


Non-deductible amount / Total balance of all non-Roth IRAs = Non-taxable percentage


In this example, 10% of the $50,000 is non-taxable, as taxes have been paid on the $5,000. However, for a conversion of $5,000 to a Roth IRA, the reality is that 90% of the conversion amount is derived from pre-tax funds and only 10% from after-tax funds. This necessitates the payment of taxes on 90% of the converted sum.

Clever strategies can be employed to navigate around the pro-rata rule. One effective approach is to transfer existing traditional IRA funds into an employer-sponsored plan. Notably, traditional IRA dollars housed within an employer-sponsored plan are exempt from inclusion in the pro-rata rule calculation.

Taxpayers also need to be aware of the five-year clock to avoid penalties. Once funds are converted and transferred to a Roth IRA, you must wait five years before withdrawing those funds tax-free. If you do a backdoor Roth IRA conversion every year, you must wait five years to tap each portion you convert. Otherwise, you risk paying additional penalties on money that's already been taxed. There are exceptions to this requirement, though, if you're 59 ½ or older or if you become disabled or die. Be cautious of the step transaction doctrine. While the IRS has not specifically ruled on backdoor Roth contributions, tax laws imply that they might view a series of steps as one unified transaction. If a taxpayer immediately converts a nondeductible IRA to a Roth IRA and the IRS determines this as a step transaction, it might be seen as an attempt to sidestep the income limitations on Roth IRA contributions.


The potential outcome could cause the backdoor Roth IRA to be deemed as an excess contribution, subjecting the taxpayer to a 6% penalty. Some experts advise waiting a period of time between the nondeductible IRA contribution and the Roth conversion to avoid this risk. The length of this period is not precisely defined by law, but practitioners usually suggest a waiting period of up to a year.


Navigating the backdoor Roth IRA process requires comprehensive understanding of the pro-rata rule, stringent adherence to the five-year rule, and prudence regarding the step transaction doctrine to avoid significant tax liabilities or penalties.

The benefits of a backdoor Roth IRA

The benefits of a backdoor Roth IRA contribution vary depending on your income level, tax bracket, age, and investment portfolio. In general, the younger you are, the more beneficial executing a backdoor Roth IRA contribution on an annual basis would be.


It is important to note that many financial advisors, even those that are a fiduciary, may understate the value of backdoor Roth IRA contributions due to conflicts of interest. When selecting an advisor, be sure to fully understand why they are, or are not, making backdoor Roth IRA recommendations.


Schedule a Free Consultation with Selective

Maximizing the value of your wealth is a complex task that requires expertise across a variety of disciplines. Schedule a free consultation with an advisor that provides comprehensive wealth management, which includes financial planning, investment management, tax strategies, estate planning, and insurance services. Schedule a free consultation today.


Final Thoughts

Navigating the realm of backdoor Roth IRA contributions can be complex yet rewarding in terms of long-term financial health. Understanding the framework and income limits associated with this type of IRA is key to maximizing its benefits. Furthermore, knowing how to navigate the opening process of a backdoor Roth IRA and adhering to the respective rules to avoid penalties protects your investment. By fully appreciating the benefits of a Backdoor Roth IRA, individuals can utilize this tool as an effective component of their retirement strategy, leading to an enhanced financial future.


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