While the Backdoor Roth IRA strategy has been employed by high-income individuals since 2010, its legality was questioned by some because of the IRS step doctrine.
But with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed by President Trump in 2017, the backdoor Roth IRA is now considered legal by Congress.
History of the Backdoor Roth IRA
Before we dive in, I’ll remind you that I am a doctor, not an attorney or accountant. Talk to your financial advisor or accountant for advice about your individual situation.
The Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 permitted conversions of nondeductible traditional IRA contributions into Roth IRAs starting in 2010. This allowed people of all incomes to rollover nondeductible traditional IRA contributions into a Roth IRA.
The Step Doctrine and the Questionable Legality of the Backdoor Roth IRA
However, because of the IRS step doctrine, there were concerns about the legality of the backdoor Roth IRA. While it was legal to make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA, and it was legal to rollover that traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, it remained illegal for a high-income individual to make a direct contribution to a Roth IRA.
The IRS step doctrine states that you cannot take multiple legal steps that, when taken together, constitutes an illegal action. So there were concerns about the legality of a backdoor Roth IRA contribution performed through the legal steps of (1) a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA, followed by (2) a conversion of the contribution to a Roth IRA.
The IRS typically gives guidance on common tax questions, but they never gave guidance on the legality of the backdoor Roth IRA. They were also never any court cases where the IRS questioned the legality of the backdoor Roth IRA on the basis of the step doctrine.
The Tax Cuts And Jobs Act and The Backdoor Roth IRA
While not originally noted in the many summaries of the tax bill (Michael Kitces only noted that the backdoor Roth rules had remained unchanged), a hat tip goes to Ashlea Ebeling at Forbes, who noted that in the footnotes of the Trump tax bill, Congress explicitly permitted the backdoor Roth IRA.
In a section of the tax bill which repealed the strategy of Roth recharacterizations of prior conversions, Congress explicitly states that while direct contributions to a Roth IRA are illegal for individuals with incomes above the AGI limit, it is legal to make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA and convert it to a Roth IRA (i.e. the backdoor Roth).
Here’s the full text of the 708-page Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. If you go to page 289 of the bill, footnote 268 and 269 both say the following:
“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.”
So there you have it. Congress, in describing the rules regarding traditional and Roth IRAs, explicitly allows individuals of any income tax bracket to do a backdoor Roth conversion.
The backdoor Roth IRA is now explicitly legal, thanks to a footnote in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.
If you are a high-income professional with an AGI above the Roth contribution limits (in 2018, the phase-out begins at $120,000 for single taxpayers and $189,000 for married filing jointly taxpayers), you can contribute to a Roth IRA through a backdoor Roth IRA contribution.
What do you think? Do you have any questions about how to implement the backdoor Roth IRA strategy?