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backdoor roth ira strategy


This strategy is for high income earners that make too much to contribute directly to a Roth IRA.   In recent years, some of these high income earners have been implementing a “backdoor Roth IRA conversion strategy” to get around the Roth IRA contribution limitations and make contributions to Roth IRA’s via “conversions”.  For the 2020 tax year, your ability to make contributions to a Roth IRA begins to phase out at the following AGI thresholds based on your filing status:

  • Single: $124,000
  • Married Filing Jointly: $196,000
  • Married Filing Separately:  $0

However, in 2010 the IRS removed the income limits on “IRA Conversions” which open up an opportunity……if executed correctly…….for high income earners to make “backdoor” contributions to a Roth IRA.

Why would a high income earning want to contribute to a Roth IRA?  Once high income earners have maxed out their contributions to their employer sponsored retirement plans, they usually begin to fund plain vanilla investment management accounts or whole life insurance policies.  When assets accumulate in an investment management account, once liquidated, the account owner typically has to pay either short-term or long term capital gains on the appreciation. For whole life insurance, even though the accumulation is tax deferred, if the policy is surrendered, the policy owner pays ordinary income tax on the gain in the policy.

With a Roth IRA, after tax contributions are made to the account and the gains in the account are withdrawn TAX FREE if the account owner at the time of withdrawal is over the age of 59½ and the Roth IRA has been in existence for 5 years.   A huge tax benefit for high income earners who are typically in a medium to higher tax bracket even in retirement.

Here is how the strategy works


  • Rollover all existing pre-tax IRA’s into your employer sponsored retirement plan
  • Make a non-deductible contribution to a Traditional IRA
  • Convert the Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA

Here are the pitfalls in the execution process


Over the years, more and more individuals have become aware of this wealth accumulation strategy.  However, there are risks associated with executing this strategy and if not executed correctly could result in adverse tax consequences.

Here are the top pitfalls:

  • Forget to aggregate Pre-Tax IRA’s
  • Do not understand that SEP IRA’s and Simple IRA’s are included in the Aggregation Rule
  • They create a “step transaction”

Pitfall #1:  IRS Aggregation Rule  


The IRA aggregate rule stipulates that when an individual has multiple IRAs, they will all be treated as one account when determining the tax consequences of any distributions (including a distribution out of the account for a Roth conversion).

This creates a significant challenge for those who wish to do the backdoor Roth strategy, but have other existing IRA accounts already in place (e.g., from prior years’ deductible IRA contributions, or rollovers from prior 401(k) and other employer retirement plans). Because the standard rule for IRA distributions (and Roth conversions) is that any after-tax contributions come out along with any pre-tax assets (whether from contributions or growth) on a pro-rata basis, when all the accounts are aggregated together, it becomes impossible to just convert the non-deductible IRA.


If an individual has pre-tax IRA’s we typically recommend that they rollover those IRA’s into their employer sponsored retirement plans which eliminates all of their pre-tax IRA balance and then open the opportunity to execute this backdoor Roth IRA contribution strategy.

Pitfall #2:  SEP IRA & Simple IRA’s count


Many smaller companies and self-employed individuals sponsor SEP IRA’s or Simple IRA Plans.  Many individuals just assume that these are “employer sponsored retirement plans” not subject to the aggregation rules.  Wrong.  In the eyes of the IRS these are “pre-tax IRA’s” and are subject to the aggregation rules.   If you have a Simple IRA or SEP IRA, make sure you take this common pitfall into account.

Pitfall #3:  Beware IRS Step Transaction Rule


This is probably the most common pitfall that we see when executing this strategy.  Individuals and investment advisors alike will make deposits to the non-deductible traditional IRA and then the next day process the conversion to the Roth IRA.  In doing this, you run the risk of creating a “step transaction”.

There is a very long explanation tied to “step transactions” and how to avoid a “step transactions” but I will provide you with a brief summary of the concept.

Here it is, if you use legal loop holes in the tax system in an obvious effort to side step other IRS limitations (like the Roth IRA income limit) it could be considered a “step transaction” by the IRS and the IRS may disallow the conversion and assess tax penalties.

Disclosure: Backdoor Roth IRA Conversion Strategy


It is highly recommend that you work closely with your financial advisor and tax advisor to determine whether or not this is a viable wealth accumulation strategy based on your personal financial situation.


Michael Ruger

About Michael………

Hi, I’m Michael Ruger. I’m the managing partner of Greenbush Financial Group and the creator of the nationally recognized Money Smart Board blog . I created the blog because there are a lot of events in life that require important financial decisions. The goal is to help our readers avoid big financial missteps, discover financial solutions that they were not aware of, and to optimize their financial future.

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Investment advisory services offered through Greenbush Financial Group, LLC. Greenbush Financial Group, LLC is a Registered Investment Advisor. Securities offered through American Portfolio Financial Services, Inc (APFS). Member FINRA/SIPC. Greenbush Financial Group, LLC is not affiliated with APFS. APFS is not affiliated with any other named business entity. There is no guarantee that a diversified portfolio will enhance overall returns or outperform a non-diversified portfolio. Diversification does not ensure against market risk. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. All performance referenced is historical and is no guarantee of future results. All indices are unmanaged and cannot be invested into directly.