The Backdoor Roth: Is It Right for You?

January 9, 2023
If your income is too high to contribute to a Roth IRA, there's another way in—but it comes with some caveats.

A Roth individual retirement account (IRA) would seem to be off limits for many higher-income earners, thanks to strict income caps on contributions to these accounts. 

But some advisors suggest another way into a Roth—if you're willing to take the backdoor route. By this method, you open a traditional IRA, make your desired contribution, and then, at a later date, convert the funds to a Roth IRA. 

Could it really be that easy to sidestep restrictions that have kept many investors from enjoying a Roth IRA's tax advantages? This strategy has gained popularity with some higher-income earners, notes Rob Williams, managing director of financial planning, retirement income, and wealth management at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. But the IRS hasn't weighed in definitively on what's allowed, so it's helpful to understand some of the issues—and it's highly recommended that you work with a professional accountant or tax advisor, Rob says.

The appeal and limitations of a Roth

With a Roth IRA, you get no up-front tax deduction, as you do with a traditional IRA, 401(k) retirement plan, or other tax-deferred account. However:

  • You pay no tax on either principal or earnings when you withdraw your money (although you must be at least age 59½ and have had the Roth for five years).
  • There's no time requirement on when you have to withdraw money, if ever—an appealing option for those wanting to leave the money to heirs. 

The trouble has been, of course, that Roth IRAs technically are only available to those whose annual income is below certain levels

For the 2022 tax year, those limits are: 

  • $214,000 for married couples filing jointly
  • $144,000 for single filers

For the 2023 tax year, the limits are: 

  • $228,000 for married couples filing jointly
  • $153,000 for single filers

On the positive side, an increasing number of employers have added Roth options to 401(k) plans. You can choose this option and contribute post-tax payroll deductions into a Roth 401(k), with no income limits.

A two-step Roth conversion process

Converting savings held in a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA is a two-step process:

  1. Open a non-deductible traditional IRA and make after-tax contributions. For 2022, you're allowed to contribute up to $6,000 ($7,000 if you're age 50 or older). Make sure you file IRS Form 8606 every year you do this.
  2. Transfer the assets from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. You can make this transfer and conversion at any point in the future. Some advisors suggest waiting a few months after opening the Roth IRA. 

Pay the tax due

The conversion triggers income tax on the appreciation of the after-tax contributions—but once in the Roth IRA, earnings compound tax-free. Distributions from the Roth IRA are tax-free as well, as long as you are 59½ and have held the Roth for at least five years (note that each conversion amount is subject to its own five-year holding period as it relates to tax-free withdrawals).

If you have no other IRAs, figuring out your tax due will be simple. However, it can be more complicated if you have other IRAs. The IRS' pro-rata rule requires you to include all of your traditional IRA assets—that means your IRAs funded with pretax (deductible) contributions as well as those funded with after-tax (nondeductible) contributions—when figuring the conversion's taxes. Then, you pay a proportional amount of taxes on the original account's pretax contributions and earnings. 

Say you contribute $6,000 to a nondeductible traditional IRA. You also have a rollover IRA worth $94,000 from a previous 401(k) made with pretax contributions. In this case, 94% of any conversion would be taxable. Here's the math:

  • Total value of both accounts = $100,000
  • Pretax contributions = $94,000
  • After-tax contribution: $6,000
  • $6,000÷$100,000 (expressed as percentage) = 6.0%
  • $6,000 (the amount converted) x 6.0% = $360 tax-free
  • $6,000 - $360 = $5,640 subject to income tax 

Note: If your 401(k) allows you to "roll in" an IRA account, as some do, you can essentially take your existing IRA out of the conversion calculation.

The backdoor Roth may not last forever

Although this strategy has existed since 2010, the IRS has not officially commented or provided formal guidance on whether it violates the step-transaction rule. (When applied, this rule treats what are several different steps as if they were a single transaction for tax purposes.) Experts have mixed opinions on the likelihood of this happening, but the lack of a definitive ruling means there is some risk involved.

If the IRS decides that the loophole is a violation, you could owe a 6% excise tax for overfunding your Roth. And if restrictions do come into play at some point, they could require backdoor Roth converters to pay a penalty, or they might include a grandfather clause. 

Roth conversions can make sense, generally, for many higher-income investors with large amounts saved in traditional IRA or 401(k) accounts, Rob says. "Having investments in traditional brokerage accounts, IRAs, and Roth IRAs as well as 401(k)s can increase flexibility in retirement," Rob says. 

But Rob says if you use this backdoor Roth strategy solely to sidestep the earnings limits on Roth IRA contributions, you should be aware of the risks and seek the counsel and support of a tax professional.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Roth IRA conversions require a 5-year holding period before earnings can be withdrawn tax free and subsequent conversions will require their own 5-year holding period. In addition, earnings distributions prior to age 59 1/2 are subject to an early withdrawal penalty.

Prior to a decision of a IRA "roll in" to an employer's 401(k), be sure to understand the benefits and limitations of your available options and consider factors such as differences in investment related expenses, plan or account fees, available investment options, distribution options, legal and creditor protections, the availability of loan provisions, tax treatment, and other concerns specific to your individual circumstances.

The Schwab Center for Financial Research is a division of Charles Schwab & Co., Inc.