Since the income limits on Roth conversions were removed in 2010, higher-income individuals who are not eligible to make a Roth IRA contribution have been able to make an indirect “backdoor Roth contribution” instead, by simply contributing to a non-deductible IRA (which can always be done regardless of income) and converting it shortly thereafter.

However, in practice the IRA aggregation rule often limits the effectiveness of the strategy, because the presence of other pre-tax IRAs and the application of the “pro-rata” rule limits the ability to convert just a new non-deductible IRA. On the other hand, those with a 401(k) plan that allows funds to be rolled in to the plan can avoid the aggregation rule by siphoning off their pre-tax funds into a 401(k) plan, and then converting the now-just-after-tax IRA remainder.

Perhaps the greatest caveat to the backdoor Roth contribution strategy, though, is the so-called “step transaction doctrine”, which allows the Tax Court to recognize that even if the individual contribution-and-conversion steps are legal, doing them all together in an integrated transaction is still an impermissible Roth contribution for high-income individuals to which the 6% excess contribution penalty tax may apply. Fortunately, though, the step transaction doctrine can be navigated, by allowing time to pass between the contribution and subsequent conversion (although there is some debate about just how much time must pass!). But perhaps the easiest way to avoid the step transaction doctrine is also the simplest – if the goal is to demonstrate to the IRS and the Tax Court that there was not a deliberate intent to avoid the Roth IRA contribution limits, stop calling it a backdoor Roth contribution in the first place!……..

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Written By: Michael Kitces