Backdoor Roth IRA: A How-To Guide

Interested in setting up one of these accounts for yourself? Learn more about the Backdoor Roth IRA and how this tax loophole can help you add thousands of dollars to your wealth and retirement savings.

Stop hovering over the image, go open your Roth IRA!

It’s that time of year to consider strategizing investing taxes into a Backdoor Roth IRA. To aid these efforts, the following is a comprehensive step-by-step guide for popular reference.

What is a Backdoor Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is an individual retirement account (IRA) containing investments benefiting from tax-free growth, and qualified tax-free distribution or withdrawal (extenuating exemptions also available). You pay taxes on the amounts contributed to a Roth IRA today in exchange for not having to pay taxes in the future. Roth IRAs are a great strategy for making sure you have access to before-tax and after-tax dollars in retirement.

Congress has limited those who can contribute to a Roth IRA to taxpayers who earn below $122,000 for single filers and $193,000 for joint filers (subject to annual variations). However, since 2010, the government allows anyone, regardless of income, to convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA by paying income tax on any account balance being converted that has not already been taxed.

Therefore, each year I make a Traditional IRA contribution of $5,500 (the contribution limit as of 2017). Because my income is too high to allow for this contribution to be tax-deductible, my contribution is known as a non-deductible contribution. In other words, I’m not deducting it from my income in the current year, so I will pay income taxes on the $5,500 contribution (i.e. it counts as part of my taxable income).

Because I am allowed to convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA regardless of income, I then convert the non-deductible Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA and pay income tax on any amount of the account balance being converted that has not already been taxed. In our case, that’s zero since we’ve included the contribution amount in our taxable income, so we pay no taxes on the conversion.

The end process leaves me with a $5,500 contribution to my Roth IRA. This is known as the “backdoor” Roth IRA contribution. Congress and the IRS are very aware of the loophole and so far have decided not to close it. Vanguard even mentions the backdoor conversion on its site.

Do I Need To Contribute via the Backdoor?

If you make less than $117,000 as a single person (or $184,000 married filing jointly), you can make a regular contribution to a Roth IRA. There is no reason to use the “backdoor”.

If your income is above these amounts, you should make a backdoor contribution to your Roth IRA.

Roth IRA Income Phase Outs

Ready to make a backdoor Roth IRA contribution? Let’s get started. Each step below tells you what to do and how to do it.

STEP 1) Convert/Remove “Other” IRAs

If you don’t have any Traditional, SEP or SIMPLE IRAs with pre-tax money, go directly to step 2. You might have a Traditional IRA if you made pre-tax contributions to an IRA before law school or you changed jobs and rolled a previous 401(k) balance to a Traditional IRA.

If you do have pre-tax money in an IRA, you must decide if you want to pay taxes on the conversion today (if so, jump to step 2). If you have a high income, you probably don’t want this money taxed at your current marginal rate and would prefer to keep it pre-tax so you can withdraw it in retirement later at what’s likely to be a lower effective tax rate.

Assuming you don’t want it taxed, you need to remove the pre-tax money. This is because the IRS won’t let you just convert the non-deductible portion of your IRA. You must convert both the non-deductible portion and the pre-tax money, pro rata, when you convert to a Roth IRA. If you’re not careful and skip this step, you’ll end up having to pay taxes on the pro rata portion of the pre-tax money since you’re converting it from pre-tax to after-tax. By December 31st of the each tax year you do a Backdoor Roth IRA, you can’t have any pre-tax money in your IRAs (unless you’re planning on paying taxes on any pre-tax money you convert).

You have a few options to remove the pre-tax money in any existing IRAs:

  1. Pay Taxes Now. As discussed above, you can pay taxes on the conversion today. The pre-tax money will be counted as part of this year’s taxable income.
  2. Reverse Rollover. The IRS allows you to transfer existing pre-tax money to an employer retirement plan (see IRS Publication 509A). Essentially, you can take all of your pre-tax money and drop it into your work’s 401(k) plan (or something similar). If you have good investment options in your workplace’s 401(k) plan, rolling the money over is a good idea anyway as you’ll consolidate your pre-tax money in one place. For this, your work’s retirement plan must accept incoming rollovers. Check with your HR department.
  3. Solo 401(k).  If your work’s plan does not accept incoming rollovers, you’ll need to have some self-employment income so you can establish a solo 401(k) plan. You don’t need to make a lot of self-employment income to set this up, just a little money will allow you to set up a Solo 401(k) for yourself which you can then use to accept the incoming transfer from your traditional IRA.
When you do a reverse rollover, you move all money in any existing IRAs to an employer sponsored retirement plan like the 401(k) offered at your work.

STEP 2) Make a Non-Deductible Contribution to a Traditional IRA

Now that you don’t have any pre-tax money in your IRAs, it’s time to make the non-deductible contribution to a Traditional IRA. Even if your income is “too high” you can make a non-deductible contribution. If you don’t have a Traditional IRA account, you’ll need to open one. If you do have one, it should have a zero balance like mine does below. There are no special steps to make it a “non-deductible” contribution, just make the contribution.

STEP 3) Wait At Least One Day

Vanguard forces you to wait one day for the funds to settle before you can convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Some people believe you should wait longer and point to the Step Transaction Doctrine as evidence. In short, the step transaction doctrine is a judicial determination that a series of formally separate steps can be collapsed into a single step for tax purposes. In other words, theoretically the contribution to the Traditional IRA and subsequent conversion to a Roth IRA could be viewed as a direct contribution to the the Roth IRA, which would be prohibited. I have never heard of the IRS invoking the step transaction doctrine for a backdoor Roth IRA contribution. Please let me know if you are aware of it ever being invoked. Personally, I make the conversion the very next day.

STEP 4) Convert From Traditional to Roth

The money is post-tax in both situations, you’re simply converting it from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

From the Vanguard website, go to your Traditional IRA Brokerage Account and click on “Convert to Roth IRA”.

Convert Traditional IRA to Roth IRA

On the conversion page, select that you’d like to convert all of the account into your Roth IRA. If you have an existing Roth IRA, the conversion will roll the funds into your current account. If you need to open a new Roth IRA account, you can do that too. At the end of the day, you only need one Roth IRA account and each year you will roll that year’s contribution into the single account.

Converting Traditional IRA to Roth IRA

After you click on “Continue”, the website will display a scary tax notice (Update 2018: This year I didn’t see the scary tax notice, so don’t be alarmed if you don’t get it). Remember, as we discussed earlier, the conversion from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is a taxable event. In your case, the taxes will be zero, so it’s not a problem. Why? Because you made a non-deductible contribution to your Traditional IRA. Income tax would only be due if you are converting a deductible Traditional IRA (i.e. pre-tax money) into a Roth IRA (i.e. post-tax money). You’re converting post-tax money into post-tax money, so no taxes are due.

Scary Notice

After the conversion, congratulations! You’ve made a successful “backdoor” contribution to your Roth IRA. You are now free to invest the money in your Roth IRA account.

STEP 5) Report the Contribution Correctly on Your Tax Return

When you report your taxes, you’ll need to make sure you have a correctly completed Form 8606. It’s a short form but there are opportunities to screw it up and confuse the IRS. Your Form 8606 should look like this, unless you’re doing a conversion in a different year from your contribution. If you’re checking your tax-preparer’s work, focus on lines 2, 14, 15 and 18. All should be a very small amount, likely zero, unless you earned a little interest in the period between making the contribution and doing the conversion. Make sure those lines aren’t large amounts like $5,500.

One interesting aspect of the form is that there’s no place to insert the date you made the conversion (your IRA custodian doesn’t report this either).

Below is a generic Form 8606 from 2016:

Form 8606 - Backdoor Roth IRA

Backdoor Roth IRA - Form 8606

STEP 6) Repeat Next Year

Most IRA custodians will keep an account open for a year even if the balance is zero, therefore your empty Traditional IRA should be available next year for you to use again. Just remember, you cannot end the taxable year on December 31st with any pre-tax money in your IRA accounts. So, if later this year you leave your employment, you can’t roll your former job’s 401(k) into a Traditional IRA unless you “remove” it again as described in Step 1.

Will Congress Close the “Backdoor”?

You’re probably also wondering if one day Congress will close the Backdoor Roth IRA. There have been many discussions about closing the loophole, but as of 2017 it’s still available. Some people speculate that Congress is happy to keep the “backdoor” open because each year some people will convert existing pre-tax money in their Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, thus generating taxable income for the year and raising tax receipts. Time will tell if the “backdoor” gets closed. Until then, you can take advantage to build a Roth IRA balance even if your income doesn’t allow you to contribute directly.

Related Backdoor Roth IRA Guides:

  • The Finance Buff’s Guide is here. He also has a good post to help you make sure Turbotax, H&R Block or TaxACT reports the backdoor contribution correctly.
  • The White Coat Investor’s Guide is here.
  • The Michael Kitces Guide is here.
  • Still have questions? I created a Backdoor Roth IRA FAQ.
Joshua Holt

Joshua Holt A practicing private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor, Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He spends 10 minutes a month on Personal Capital keeping track of his money. He's also exploring real estate crowdfunding platforms like Fundrise which are open to both accredited and non-accredited investors.

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    Twenty-eight thoughts on Backdoor Roth IRA: A How-To Guide

    1. Lots of good info here BigLaw! Very useful for people outside the standard Roth income brackets.

      I believe standard contributions do have the advantage of being immediately withdrawable, while conversion contributions from the ‘Backdoor’ must be ‘seasoned’. (If I understand correctly)

      Are they any other advantages/disadvantages to the different contribution methods?

      1. That’s correct, all conversions have to be seasoned for 5 years before they can be withdrawn. It does mean that if you haven’t made any direct Roth IRA contributions to your Roth IRA, you can’t really use the Roth as a de facto emergency fund if you’re only making backdoor Roth IRA contributions.

    2. This is a fantastic job. As you and I discussed I currently have an IRA from rolling over my 401K from previous employers.

      I am allowed to roll those funds over to my current employers 401K plan, which would allow me to deploy the back door roth strategy without complexity.

      However, since I have given this more thought, the funds in my IRA are fully invested, and I use this account for a lot of my option strategies, which have expirations as far out as 2018. I don’t think I want to (1) liquidate those positions early, (2) give up the unlimited options I currently have with my TD Ameritrade IRA account (you are severely limited in a company 401K).

      That said, I don’t think I am going to pursue this option like I thought I would.

      BUT if I can get a qualified plan set up for my wife’s company, I would be more than happy to implement this with her IRA (by transferring her account to the new qualified plan).

      I think my homework is attempt this again in 2017.

      1. Another option is to create a solo 401(k) under GYFG (you don’t need to contribute much from the blog, just a few dollars) and then roll your existing IRA into it. Presumably you could do this with TD Ameritrade and keep the account intact. I don’t know for certain, but I also thought if you do “custodian to custodian” rollover transactions you aren’t actually liquidating the position, so you won’t have to worry about terminating options / selling assets and then repurchasing them in the new account.

    3. I’m so happy I just found your blog! Love your content. My story doesn’t make me quite your ideal audience; as it turns out, I was accepted into top law schools around this time last year and declined because I was terrified of the debt. It was scary but the journey since has been so much more exciting. Your “Start Here” page really spoke to me, though, in the huge myth 20 somethings have that they’ll work in big law for 2-3 years, pay off their loans, and bail. So many voices in my head just kept telling me it just. doesn’t. work. that. way., which is why I made the decision that I did. No regrets! But, I definitely will always wonder the sort of lawyer I would’ve been.
      Sometimes having so many options is more of a blessing than a curse! Anyway, thanks for writing this great content. I’ll be back.

      All the best,

      1. Smart move. A lot of people go to law school for the wrong reasons (i.e. they think they’ll make tons of money). If you really want a law degree, you could always get one later or through a part-time program. Sometimes the best answer to a potential pre-law student is just to say “maybe NOW isn’t the right time to go to law school” – re-evaluate in a couple of years and see if you feel differently.

    4. Hey Josh! It’s Taylor 🙂 So happy that I have learned about this blog and so grateful that you are doing it. I spent hours on it last Saturday and followed all of your advice. I am trying to follow this how to guide but I’m getting stuck on opening the Roth IRA account. I already opened the traditional IRA (at Vanguard) and made my max 2016 contribution. Now I’m trying to open the Roth IRA so that I can convert the traditional IRA. But when I reach the page during the Roth IRA account opening process that asks me to make a contribution, it won’t let me continue with a contribution of $0. But I know that I can’t make Roth IRA contributions directly. Do you know how I skip the initial contribution? Thank you!

      1. Hey Taylor – Glad you’re finding the site helpful! Do you have the option to convert to a Roth IRA when you’re looking at the Traditional IRA summary as shown in this picture:

        I’m not sure that you have to open a Roth IRA account in advance of the conversion. I think you can just convert the Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA (which will do all of the account opening for you) but I’m not 100% sure about that.

        If you don’t have the option to convert to a Roth IRA (as shown in the picture), I’d give Vanguard a call and explain that you’re trying to do a backdoor Roth contribution and ask them what to do next. They will be familiar with the backdoor Roth.

    5. Hello, my non-deductible traditional IRA contribution grew in the 30 days I waited to convert to the Roth IRA (from $5,500 to $5,503). Should I still choose “covert all” on the Vanguard site, or choose only the contribution limit of $5,500? If so, what should I do with the remaining $3 in the traditional IRA? If I covert all, I recognize that I’ll pay taxes on that growth, but won’t I be going over the $5,500 limit? Any help is appreciated. I get confused on these points yearly.

      1. Patrick – Sorry for the delayed reply! This isn’t really a problem and I hope you figured that out without having to wait for me. Your $5,500 contribution to the non-deductible traditional IRA met the requirement that you are only allowed to contribute $5,500 to your IRA each year (so no problems there).

        After that, if you choose “convert all” (which you should) and convert any gains, you are creating a taxable event solely with respect to the gains, which in your case is $3. That $3 in gains will be taxable when you fill out your 2017 income tax return.

        I avoid these minor headaches by doing the conversion the next day.

    6. Hey Josh, are you making your non-deductible contributions every pay check, or are you doing one lump-sum contribution beginning/end of year? I know there are dollar cost averaging arguments/counter-arguments, but I am more curious whether doing one conversion per year is seemingly more under the radar than 12 conversions. Thanks!

    7. Hi there! Thanks for your post. I just got an email from my CPA (on updates on Tax Year 2018) that states “No More Recharacterization of IRA Contributions. This ends the practice of ‘back-door Roth'”–Do you have any insight about this? Thanks!

      1. Yes. I’d consider firing your CPA.

        Backdoor Roth IRAs and Mega Backdoor Roth IRAs survived the recent tax bill. You can still make Backdoor Roth IRA contributions in 2018 (with no changes from previous years). It’s pretty surprising that a professional CPA would miss this and get confused.

        The confusion stems from the fact that IRA recharacterizations have been eliminated. What’s a recharacterization? It’s a process that allows you to switch the type of IRA (i.e. Roth IRA or Traditional IRA) through October 15th of the year after you made the original contribution.

        Why was it helpful to be able to recharacterize IRAs?

        From the Boglehead wiki:

        “If the value of your IRA decreases after a conversion, you can recharacterize the conversion, avoiding the tax on the original conversion, and then convert the IRA at a lower value for a lower tax bill. This is the most common way to save taxes with a recharacterization. This will be disallowed starting in 2018.

        Example: You converted a $10,000 IRA to a Roth in April 2008, and expected to pay $2500 tax on the conversion because you were in a 25% tax bracket. In March 2009, your Roth has lost 40% of its value since the conversion. You recharacterize the conversion, and no longer owe any tax on it for 2008, leaving you with $6000 in the original IRA. In April 2009 (at least 31 days later), with the IRA now worth $7000, you convert it again; you will owe $1750 in taxes for 2009 on the conversion, saving $750 in taxes.”

        Since you can no longer do an IRA recharacterization, this means that once you convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA you can no longer go back. That’s fine for us because we’re making a non-deductible contribution anyway (so already paying taxes on the money) so there never was a scenario where you’d want to undo a Backdoor Roth IRA contribution anyway.

    8. Hi Josh – question about step 1: I have an old Traditional IRA and no way of doing a reverse rollover or opening a solo 401(k). Do I need to convert the old Traditional IRA if I want to try a Backdoor Roth or could I open a new Traditional IRA and use the new account? If I have to convert, is there a way of modeling whether the tax hit at the current marginal rate would eventually be outweighed by the benefits of being able to save via the Backdoor Roth? (For context, there is only about $7000 in this old IRA, so conversion wouldn’t be the end of the world but I’d prefer to avoid that if I can just open a new account.)

      1. If you can’t “hide” the Traditional IRA by doing a reverse rollover (bummer – your employer won’t let you?) or opening a solo 401(k), then your options are pretty much limited to converting it into a Roth IRA. Since it’s a relatively small balance, I probably wouldn’t worry about it too much and just do the conversion. You’ll pay income tax on the $7K at potentially a higher marginal rate than you would in retirement but you’ll get the money in a Roth account where it will never be taxed again. The ~$2-3K in taxes you may pay upon the conversion is worth the price of being able to do Backdoor Roths going forward.

        The reason why you have to convert the $7K and can’t just open a separate account to make your Backdoor Roth IRA contribution is that on Line 6 of Form 8606 you’re required to report ALL Traditional, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, so the IRS will force you to convert the deductible contributions pro-rata if you do not convert the entire balance of your IRAs.

    9. Hi Josh,

      to maximize my backdoor-Roth IRA contributions, I made a my 2015 non-deductible $5500 contribution to my Trad. IRA in early April 2016. Then, I converted that amount on 4/25/2016 to Roth, so I am carrying a basis forward (not the clean backdoor way, but I was able to get a 2015 contribution in, when I found out about this backdoor Roth IRA in early ’16).

      Mistake #1:
      I continued to make monthly contributions to my Trad. IRA, and on 12/31/2016 I had about $3263 in my Trad. IRA. This amount seems to have screwed me on my 2016 Form 8606, as it was essentially subtracted from my nontaxable portion, in line 6. (I wasn’t aware of the $0 on 12/31 strategy at the time).

      To double-screw myself, in calendar year 2017, I made about $3250 of non-deductible contributions for 2016, so that was also deducted from my nontaxable portion calculation, in line 4.

      It seems like I did the two things you should avoid – does that sound right to you?

    10. That’s correct, all conversions have to be seasoned for 5 years before they can be withdrawn. It does mean that if you haven’t made any direct Roth IRA contributions to your Roth IRA, you can’t really use the Roth as a de facto emergency fund if you’re only making backdoor Roth IRA contributions.

    11. Hi Josh,
      I did a backdoor conversion last year for the first time. Never had an IRA before and of course will not claim a deduction for it. However, I received a 2020 Form 1099-R from my broker (Vanguard). It indicates the entire amount is taxable. Is this cause for concern with this years tax return?

      1. Hi John –

        Congratulations on doing the backdoor conversion! That’s awesome. No, you should not be concerned. The entire amount of the contribution is in fact taxable and will be reported as taxable income (it’s ultimately a Roth contribution, so that makes sense). To ensure that you aren’t double-taxed (i.e. taxed on the income AND taxed on the conversion), you’ll have to file Form 8606 as shown above in Step 5.

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