This is the notes I gathered when researching how to make Backdoor Roth contribution, how to gather tax documents and report contributions and conversions in tax filing using TurboTax. The content is modified from thefinancebuff.com. See original content in reference links at the end.
What exactly is a backdoor Roth IRA?
A backdoor Roth is a conversion of Traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA. Currently, anyone can convert money that they have put into a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, no matter how much income they earn. What’s more, they can also roll as much money as they want from an existing Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. In other words, if the Traditional IRA has more than the yearly contribution limits on IRAs, you can roll over that larger sum into a Roth at one time.
Keep in mind: This isn’t a tax dodge. You will need to pay taxes on any money in your Traditional IRA that hasn’t already been taxed. The funds that you convert to a Roth IRA will most likely count as income, which could kick you into a higher tax bracket in the year you do the conversion. On the other hand, if your income happens to be unusually low in a particular year—perhaps you had a gap in employment—you could take advantage of that situation by making the Roth conversion then. Timing is important. Carefully calculate the tax implications of a Roth IRA conversion before you decide.
You can do a backdoor Roth IRA in one of two ways. The first method is to contribute money to an existing Traditional IRA, sell shares, and then roll over the money to a Roth IRA account. Or, you can convert an entire Traditional IRA account to a Roth IRA account. Your bank or brokerage should be able to help you with the mechanics. Your Traditional IRA doesn’t have to be new. You can roll over existing Traditional IRA money—or an old Traditional IRA account—into a Roth.
Who should consider the Backdoor Roth?
If your income is “too high” for contributing to a Roth IRA, you should consider the Backdoor Roth. The IRS publishes the income limit for contributing to a Roth IRA every year.
If your income isn’t above the thresholds, consider a deductible contribution to a traditional IRA if you qualify for one or contribute to a Roth IRA directly.
Why should someone consider doing the backdoor Roth IRA?
When you have money in a taxable account, you pay taxes on interest and dividends. When you eventually sell the assets, you also pay taxes on the capital gains. If you put money in a Roth IRA, you don’t pay those taxes.
Step 1 – “Hide” other IRAs
If you don’t have any traditional IRA (say as the result of a rollover from a previous 401k or 403b), SEP-IRA, or SIMPLE IRA, you are in good shape. Skip to step 2. If you are married, please note IRAs are owned by one and only one person. Each spouse should look at his or her IRAs separately. If you don’t have any traditional IRA, SEP-IRA, or SIMPLE IRA but your spouse does, you are not affected but your spouse is affected.
If you have a traditional IRA, SEP-IRA or SIMPLE IRA, and you don’t mind paying taxes to convert all of them to a Roth IRA now, also skip to step 2. When your balances in those IRAs are small, the taxes you will have to pay when you convert them are also small.
If you have a traditional IRA, SEP-IRA or SIMPLE IRA, but you don’t want to convert them and pay taxes at a high rate just yet, rollover almost all the pre-tax money to an employer sponsored retirement plan: 401k, 403b or 457. Most employer-based plans accept incoming rollovers.
An inherited IRA doesn’t count if you keep it separate as an inherited IRA (see Inherited IRA and Roth Conversion Pro-Rata Rule).
Everything in the traditional IRA, SEP-IRA, and SIMPLE IRA, except any non-deductible contributions you made in the past, is pre-tax money. For example if your traditional IRA has $34,000 in it and you made $10,000 non-deductible contributions in the past, $24,000 is pre-tax money. Move $24,000 to an employer sponsored plan. If you never made any non-deductible contributions in the past, all $34,000 is pre-tax money.
If you’ve made non-deductible contributions to your traditional IRA in the past, a key requirement is that you leave enough money behind in the traditional IRA — at least equal to your past non-deductible contributions. Don’t cut it too close. Consider market fluctuations and leave yourself a small cushion to show that on the day the money goes from your IRAs to your employer plan you still have slightly more money in the IRAs than your past non-deductible contributions.
You are allowed to rollover only pre-tax money from a traditional IRA to an employer plan because of a special rule. Read more about this special rule in IRS Publication 590A. Look for “Tax treatment of a rollover from a traditional IRA to an eligible retirement plan other than an IRA” near the end of page 22.
If your plan doesn’t accept incoming rollovers or if you don’t like your plan, create some self-employment income and set up a solo 401k plan, also known as a self-employed 401k plan or individual 401k plan.
House-sitting, dog-walking, tutoring, helping neighbors set up computer equipment, etc. are all good ways to earn self-employment income. Remember you don’t have to make a living on it. You just need a little self-employment income in order to qualify for setting up a solo 401k plan. See Solo 401k When You Have Self-Employment Income.
Step 2 – Make a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA
After Step 1, you either don’t have any traditional IRA, SEP-IRA, or SIMPLE IRA, or you only have a traditional IRA with non-deductible contributions in it (maybe plus a bit of earnings). You make a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA. As long as you have earned income, even if your income is “too high,” you can still make a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA.
The IRS publishes the contribution limit ever year. Look it up.
Step 3 – Wait
The law does not impose any waiting period between a contribution and a conversion (step 4). However, some are concerned that if you convert too soon, it can be seen as an abuse.
There is no official guideline for how long you should wait. Some say a few days; some say 30 days; some say 6 months; some say wait until the end of the year. Pick a time you feel comfortable with.
Having the money sit in a traditional IRA for a short period of time is not going to kill you. The tax on the earnings won’t be much because you won’t have a lot of earnings.
Step 4 – Convert the traditional IRA to Roth IRA
Ask your IRA provider how to do this. Some can do it online. Some will want a signed form. There is no income limit for the conversion. Because your Roth IRA conversion comes primarily from your non-deductible contributions, there will be very little taxes on the conversion.
Be sure to specify you want to convert money in your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, not recharacterize your contribution. The two are not the same. Using the wrong term can lead to bad consequences.
Also be sure to choose “no tax withholding” for your conversion. This way 100% of the money goes into your Roth account.
Step 1 is necessary because if you didn’t do it, your conversion will be taxed by the percentage of pretax money in all IRAs (the “pro-rata rule”). Money in employer sponsored plans doesn’t count in the pro-rata rule.
Step 5 – Report on your tax return
Since you made a non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA in Step 2, you will need to include Form 8606 when you file your taxes. It’s a very simple form. If you use tax software, it will be included automatically if you answer the questions correctly.
Contributions to an IRA can be tagged for the current year or the previous year (if done before April 15 in the following year). Conversions are always tracked to the calendar year in which it actually happened. You report on the tax return your non-deductible contribution to a traditional IRA for that year and your converting to Roth in that year. If you contribute for the previous year and then convert, you will have to report in two separate years. It’s much simpler if you contribute for the current year and then convert before December 31.
In the example above, the contribution made for year X-1 in year X goes on the tax return for year X-1. It has to carry over the tax basis to the return for year X. Its conversion to Roth in year X goes on the tax return for year X. The contribution for X to be made in X+1 again goes on the tax return for year X but the conversion in year X+1 must wait for the tax return for year X+1.
That can be very confusing.
The easy way to do it is to contribute for the current year rather than waiting until the following year. Contribute for year X in year X and convert in year X. Contribute for year X+1 in year X+1 and convert in year X+1. This way will be clean and neat. Both the contribution and the conversion go on the same tax return. You don’t carry over anything from one year to the next or wait until the following year to finish it off.
That’s very clean. I used the same assumption for $50 in earnings by the time it was converted.
If you are doing backdoor Roth, please do yourself a big favor and do it the easy way. Contribute for the current year and convert it in the same year. Contribute for year X in year X and convert in year X. Don’t wait until the following year. Otherwise you just confuse yourself at tax time.
If you must get caught up for one year, that’s fine. Contribute for the previous year before April 15, but also contribute for the current year in the current year, and convert both in the current year. This way you will have a clean slate come next year, which lets you do it the easy way in the following year and beyond.
Non-Deductible Contribution to Traditional IRA
First we enter the non-deductible contribution to the Traditional IRA for 2015. Complete this part whether you contributed for 2015 in 2015 or you did it or are planning to do it in 2016 before April 15. If your contribution in 2015 was for 2014, make sure you entered it on your 2014 tax return. If not, fix your 2014 return first.
Convert Traditional IRA to Roth
When you convert the Traditional IRA to Roth, you receive a 1099-R for that year. Complete this section only if you converted in the year for which you are doing the tax return. In this example, we assume by the time you converted, the money in the Traditional IRA had grown from $5,500 to $5,550.
Step 6 – Repeat Steps 2 to 5 next year
Step 1 is a one-time task. After it’s completed, you just repeat Steps 2-5 every year.
Most IRA custodians will keep an account open for a year even after the balance goes to zero. In such case next year you just contribute to the same empty traditional IRA and convert into your existing Roth IRA. It’s not necessary to open new accounts.
No Rollover to Traditional IRA
When you are repeating steps 2 to 5 every year, remember not to roll over from an employer-sponsored plan to a traditional IRA in the same year, either before or after you do the Roth conversion. You can leave the money in the original plan, roll over from one plan to another plan, or roll over to your own solo 401k, just not roll over to a traditional IRA. If you must roll over to a traditional IRA, you will have to “hide” it again using Step 1.
Reverse the Order?
Some readers asked about reversing the order: do Step 1 after Step 4 but before December 31 in the same year. I don’t recommend it, even though it works the same on the tax form.
When you roll over from your traditional, SEP or SIMPLE IRA to a qualified plan, you are explicitly allowed to pick pre-tax money only. Not so when you do the conversion; you are not supposed to pick only after-tax money. The tax forms don’t show exact dates. If you reverse the order, you can probably get away with it if you are not audited, but I think it’ll be messier if you must explain to an IRS agent.
It’s too much trouble. Why don’t they just open the front door and let everyone contribute directly to a Roth IRA?
If the front door is wide open and everyone can contribute directly to a Roth IRA, the government will lose too much revenue. The income limit is imposed to reduce the revenue impact. Only those who know about the backdoor and are willing to perform the necessary steps can take advantage of the backdoor Roth IRA. Diligence brings rewards.
Will they close the backdoor?
It’s possible the backdoor will be closed. The President already included in his budget proposal to close it although it’s hard to get it passed by Congress. If you are afraid the backdoor will be closed, you should do it now when the backdoor is still open.