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Is Congress Closing the Backdoor to Roth IRAs?

An advisor asked: “Is Congress Closing the Backdoor to Roth IRAs?”

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with a financial advisor from California is representative of a common inquiry related to Roth conversions.

Highlights of the Discussion
Potentially, yes, as well as restricting other Roth conversion strategies. As part of the tentative measures to help fund the proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package (a.k.a., Build Back Better Act ), the House Ways and Means Committee has suggested, among other tactics, restricting “back-door Roth IRAs,” a popular tax-reduction strategy where individuals convert traditional IRA and/or retirement plan assets to Roth IRAs. If enacted as proposed, after-tax IRA and after-tax 401(k) plan conversions would be eliminated after 12/31/2021. For amounts other-than after-tax (i.e., pretax assets), traditional IRA and plan conversions for taxpayers who earn over the following taxable income thresholds would cease after 12/31/2031:

• Single taxpayers (or taxpayers married filing separately) with AGI over $400,000,
• Married taxpayers filing jointly with AGI over $450,000, and
• Heads of households with AGI over $425,000 (all indexed for inflation).

The buildup of Roth assets can be a source of tax-free income later if certain conditions are met. Ending Roth conversions using after-tax contributions in a defined contribution plan or IRA, and restricting Roth conversions of pre-tax plan or IRA assets would materially limit many taxpayers’ ability to accumulate Roth assets in a tax-free or tax-reduced manner.
You won’t find the phrase backdoor Roth IRA in the Internal Revenue Code or Treasury regulations. Nor is it a specific product, but the industry has known about the phenomena for years. A backdoor Roth IRA is merely a series of transactions or steps an individual can take to have a Roth IRA—regardless of income level. While initially poorly understood and lacking clear IRS guidance, so called “back-door Roth IRAs” have been legitimized over the years by the IRS.

The ability to make a 2021 Roth IRA contribution is phased out and eliminated for single tax filers with income between $125,000-$140,000; and for joint tax filers with income between $198,000-$208,000. Consequently, if a person earns too much, he or she cannot make a Roth IRA contribution directly (i.e., through the front door). But many can still take another route—by converting traditional IRA or qualified retirement plan assets, a transaction that has become known as the backdoor Roth IRA.

Congress repealed any income limitations for Roth IRA conversions in 2010. Consequently, regardless of income level, anyone could fund a Roth IRA through a conversion. For example, if a person exceeds the income limitation for contributions to a Roth IRA, he or she could contribute amounts (deductible or nondeductible) to a traditional IRA based on earned income and, shortly thereafter, convert the contribution from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Similarly, a person with a 401(k)-plan account balance could convert eligible plan assets either in-plan to a designated Roth account (if one exists) or out-of-plan to a Roth IRA through a plan distribution. Assets that are taxable at the point of conversion would be included in the individual’s taxable income for the year. Going forward, earnings would accumulate tax-deferred and, potentially, would be tax-free upon distribution from the Roth IRA. Under the authority of IRS Notice 2014-54, a qualified plan participant can rollover pre-tax assets to a traditional IRA for a tax-free rollover and direct any after-tax assets to a Roth IRA for a tax-free Roth conversion.

Conclusion
Plan participants and IRA owners need to be aware that as part of the 2021 budget reconciliation process, the ability to convert assets to Roth assets may be sunsetting. If revenue-generating provisions of the Build Back Better Act are enacted as currently proposed, Roth conversions of after-tax IRA and after-tax 401(k) plan assets would be eliminated after 12/31/2021; and Roth conversions of pre-tax IRA and plan assets would cease after 12/31/2031.

Click here for an RLC webinar on the proposed changes.

© Copyright 2021 Retirement Learning Center, all rights reserved
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De-villainizing Backdoor Roth IRAs

“Backdoor Roth IRAs sound bad. Are they?”  

ERISA consultants at the Retirement Learning Center (RLC) Resource Desk regularly receive calls from financial advisors on a broad array of technical topics related to IRAs, qualified retirement plans and other types of retirement savings and income plans, including nonqualified plans, stock options, and Social Security and Medicare. We bring Case of the Week to you to highlight the most relevant topics affecting your business.

A recent call with a financial advisor from California is representative of a common inquiry related to Roth IRA conversions.

Highlights of the Discussion

You won’t find the phrase backdoor Roth IRA in the Internal Revenue Code or Treasury regulations. Nor is it a specific product, but the industry has known about the phenomena for years.  A backdoor Roth IRA is merely a series of transactions or steps an individual can take to have a Roth IRA—regardless of income level.

The ability to make a 2019 Roth IRA contribution is phased out and eliminated for single tax filers with income between $122,000-$137,000; and for joint tax filers with income between $193,000-$203,000. Consequently, if a person earns too much, he or she cannot make a Roth IRA contribution directly (i.e., through the front door). But, many can still take another route—through a traditional IRA.

For traditional IRA contributions, there are modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) thresholds that apply above which individuals are prevented from making deductible contributions.[1] However, anyone under the age of 70½ with earned income can make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA, regardless of income level.  Anyone with a traditional IRA can convert it to a Roth IRA regardless of income level. The traditional-IRA-to-Roth-IRA conversion is another route to having a Roth IRA—what has become known as the backdoor Roth.

IRA technicians through the years have raised the specter of the Step Transaction Doctrine to cast a shadow over the efficacy of the backdoor Roth IRA. The Step Transaction Doctrine is a broad application tax law policy in which the IRS may view a series of separate but related transactions as a single transaction and apply any tax liability based on that transaction rather than the individual transactions in the series.

A traditional-IRA-to-Roth-IRA conversion is a taxable event to the extent a person converts pre-tax dollars. There are ways to maximize the tax efficiency of the transaction, for example, by rolling over IRA pre-tax dollars first to a qualified retirement plan. Those strategies are beyond the scope of this writing, but the consultants at RLC’s Resource Desk would be happy to have those discussions.

Informal guidance from the IRS and Congress from a year ago seems to have put to rest the concerns about backdoor Roth IRAs and the Step Transaction Doctrine. First, Congress made reference to the legitimacy of the traditional-IRA-to-Roth-IRA conversion in its conference report for the Tax Cut and Jobs Act (see page 289).

Although an individual with AGI exceeding certain limits is not permitted to make a contribution directly to a Roth IRA, the individual can make a contribution to a traditional IRA and convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

Second, in a July 10, 2018, Tax Talk Today, Donald Kieffer Jr., a tax law specialist in employee plans rulings and agreements with the IRS Tax-Exempt and Government Entities Division, said the backdoor Roth is allowed under the law. Mr. Kieffer stated: “I think the IRS’s only caution would be whenever we see words like ‘backdoor’ or ‘workaround’ or other step transactions that are putatively enabling a way to get around limits – especially statutory contribution limits – you generally find the IRS is not happy and prepared to challenge those. But in this one that we’re talking about, it’s allowed under the law.”

Conclusion

According to IRS and Congressional guidance, “backdoor” is no longer a cue for a potentially illicit tax activity when linked to Roth IRA. Therefore, it’s time to de-villainize the transaction.

[1] If filing a joint return and covered by a workplace retirement plan $103,000,-$123,000; Single or head of household $64,000-$74,000; and Joint return with spouse not covered by a workplace plan $193,000-$203,000

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