How to Sneak Into a Roth IRA: A Loophole for Higher Earners

Roth IRA
Roth IRA

If you're trying to save for retirement, a Roth IRA could be one of your most powerful tools. But if you're a high earner, then until recently, you wouldn't have been able to take advantage of these retirement accounts.

Now, though, there's a little-known way you can get the benefits of a Roth IRA even if you earn more than the income limit. It takes a little extra work, but over time, it can result in thousands of dollars in saved taxes for you.

Most people who use IRAs to save for retirement are more familiar with the Traditional IRA. Those let you take a tax deduction for the money you contribute to your account, giving you an instant tax break that can earn you a bigger refund in the short term. Best of all, although time's running out, you can still make an IRA contribution for 2011 -- that's right, it's for last year -- as long as you get your money in by Tuesday's tax-filing deadline.

Roth IRAs, on the other hand, don't give you a deduction up front, so they aren't as popular. What Roths dogive you is tax-free growth for your IRA. So you won't have to pay any taxes on the money when you take it out of your Roth -- unlike a traditional IRA, for which withdrawals come with a potentially heavy tax burden.

What If You Make Too Much?

The problem that some taxpayers run into with Roth IRAs is that there are income limits preventing some people from making contributions. If you were single and made more than $107,000 in 2011 -- or more than $169,000 for joint filers -- then you aren't allowed to make a full contribution to a Roth IRA.

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But thanks to another tax law, you can sneak into a Roth IRA through a two-step process. First, you open a Traditional IRA. Then, you can convert those contributed funds into a Roth.

This loophole works because of a 2010 tax law change that eliminated income limits on Roth conversions. Because anyone can now convert from a traditional IRA regardless of income, Roth IRAs are now available to everyone. And if you play your cards right, then the tax impact can be exactly the same as if you simply contributed directly to a Roth in the first place.

The time-sensitive part of this strategy is getting your money into the IRA before the deadline. If you succeed in doing that, then you don't have to get the actual Roth conversion done until after April 17.

Be Careful

Before you use this strategy, though, you have to be aware of some potential complications. The biggest comes if you have other Traditional IRAs for which you took deductions in previous years. If you do a Roth conversion, the IRS is going to want some of those deductions back -- and you'll end up having to include at least part of the converted amount as taxable income, potentially boosting your tax bill. Nobody wants to see that, and it usually doesn't make sense even if you have the money to pay it.

But even if you have big Traditional IRAs already, you still may have a viable solution. If you have a 401(k) retirement plan account at work and your employer accepts what's known as a rollover from your IRA into your 401(k), then you should be able to execute the strategy without taking a big tax bite. Still, having to restructure your entire retirement portfolio adds an extra level of complexity that makes it critical that you set things up correctly.

As with all tax matters, consulting with an accountant to make sure this series of moves works in your particular situation is essential. But given the opportunity that a Roth IRA brings to the table, it's worth some extra effort to see if you can sneak in past the IRS and its income limits.

Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has a mix of traditional and Roth retirement accounts. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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