Monday, February 6, 2012

The Backdoor Roth IRA

The following question came up recently:
I make too much money to contribute to a Roth. Is there another way to make an additional contribution to my retirement savings?
How much is too much money? If you are single the upper limit is $122,000. If you are married the upper limit is $179,000. We are assuming, by the way, that you are covered by a plan – say a 401(k) - at work.
So what do you do?
Fund a nondeductible IRA. What is this? It is the third “flavor” of an IRA. We all know the regular IRA, where you put away money, deduct it on your tax return and pay tax on the monies down the road when you take the money out. For a Roth, you put away money, take no deduction but pay no tax when you take out the money. Then there is the nondeductible. You get no deduction and the money is (partially) taxable when you take it out.
For example, say that you put away $50,000 in nondeductibles which are worth $250,000 when you start drawing. The withdrawal is 20% nontaxable ($50,000/$250,000). Another way to say this is that 80% will be taxable.
Nondeductibles are the stepchild of IRAs. You want to fund a Roth (if you can) before considering a nondeductible.
Say that you are single, in your 40s and make $200,000 per year. I recommend that you fund a nondeductible IRA for $5,000, because $5,000 is the best you can do. You have to fund your IRA by April 15th under all flavors of IRA. Let April 15th pass and convert the nondeductible to a Roth. How do you do that? It may be as easy as going on the broker’s website and moving the monies between the two IRAs. Think of it as moving monies between a savings and checking account.
It used to be that one could not do this, but the tax rules have been changed to allow it.
What is the downside? There are two, and the second one can be an insurmountable hurdle to some taxpayers.
(1)    First, any income in the nondeductible becomes immediately taxable. In our example, if the $5,000 is now worth $5,450, you will have $450 of taxable income. If you do what I recommend, chances are the income will be negligible as you did not leave the monies in the nondeductible for very long.
(2)    Second, the pro rata rule. If you have monies in other IRAs, you have to use a fraction. The numerator is the amount you have in the nondeductible. The denominator is the total you have in all IRAs. For example, if you have a $5,000 nondeductible and $95,000 in a regular IRA, your ratio will be 5% ($5,000/ ($5,000 + $95,000). If you convert in this scenario, the conversion will be 95% taxable.
How do you handle issue (2)? If you have a retirement plan at work and the plan allows you to roll-in, then you would roll-in your $95,000 regular IRA. At this point the only IRA you have is the $5,000 nondeductible. Your ratio now is $5,000/$5,000, meaning that 0% is taxable.
The nice thing about a nondeductible is that there is no income limit. If you make $1 million per year, you can still contribute to a nondeductible.
How long do you let the money cool before converting? Tax advisors disagree. Some advisors recommend at least six months, whereas others say that you can do so the next day. I would recommend more than a day and not more than December 31st of the year of the conversion.
One more bit of advice. If you fund a nondeductible, put it in its own account, preferably titled “Nondeductible.” Do not commingle your IRAs. This is not Neapolitan ice cream.

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