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What You Need to Know About Roth IRA Income Limits 

Understanding Roth IRA contribution income limits can be key to your ability to use these tax-advantaged retirement savings accounts.

By Frances Coppola | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor

9 Min Read | July 31, 2020 in Money

 

At-A-Glance

Roth IRAs let you save for retirement with post-tax dollars, so everything you withdraw after you retire will be tax-free.

Unlike Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs have income-based contribution limits.

If you accidentally exceed your yearly Roth IRA contribution limit, the IRS will tax the excess amount.

There are many ways to save for retirement, each with different benefits and limitations. Many people are familiar with traditional IRAs, which let you save for retirement tax-free. Fewer, though, are aware of Roth IRAs, which may be an attractive alternative to a traditional IRA depending on your situation and your needs. But there’s a catch: Roth IRA contribution limits. Not everyone can save in a Roth IRA. Your eligibility to contribute, as well as the amount you can contribute each year if you are eligible, depends on your income. 

 

To help you decide whether a Roth IRA makes sense for you, I’ll discuss the following:

  • Different tax benefits of traditional vs. Roth IRAs.
  • The income limits for Roth IRA contributions.
  • How to calculate your income-based Roth IRA contribution limit.
  • What happens if you contribute over the limit to a Roth IRA. 

 

What’s the Difference Between a Roth IRA and a Traditional IRA?

Both a traditional Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA) and a Roth IRA provide tax relief. The difference is when that relief applies:

  • In a traditional IRA, the money you pay into the account is free of tax – you get to deduct it from your taxable income for the tax year in which you contribute it. But you pay tax when you draw money out, presumably after you retire. This approach is called tax deferred.
  • But in a Roth IRA, Uncle Sam takes his cut up front – you pay into the account from your after-tax income. But everything you draw from that account after you retire (or even before, in some cases) will be tax-free. 

Roth IRAs might sound like a good deal, but it depends on your personal circumstances. Many financial planners advise young people to save as much as they can afford in Roth IRAs, before their income rises above the contribution limit. Generally, because the more you earn the more tax you pay, if you expect your income will be higher in retirement than during your working life, then paying the tax up front with a Roth IRA can mean a lower total tax bill over your lifetime. Alternatively, if you are unsure about your retirement tax status, it can be helpful to diversify with both taxed investment and savings accounts and tax deferred. For example, if you have a tax-deferred 401(k) through your employer, which will incur tax when you draw from it in retirement, you could include a Roth IRA in your retirement planning so that you will be able to take some of your retirement income tax free.1

 

Three other differences between traditional and Roth IRAs result from the different initial tax treatment:

  • When you can access your contributions: With a Roth IRA you can take out your contributions – but not their earnings – at any time without tax or penalty, even before you retire. Earnings can be taken out tax free provided you are over 59½ years old and have held your Roth IRA for more than 5 years.
  • How long you can contribute: You can’t contribute to a traditional IRA after the age of 72. But you can continue to put money into a Roth IRA indefinitely.
  • Whether you must make withdrawals: With a traditional IRA you must make withdrawals, known as “required minimum distributions,” once you reach 72. But you can leave your money in a Roth IRA for as long as you like.

So, if you are still working in your seventies, or you have income from other sources that you want to reinvest, a Roth IRA could be a good choice.

 

What is the Income Limit for a Roth IRA?

Income limits on Roth IRA contributions exist because the tax advantages of IRA accounts are meant to benefit average American workers. Income limits prevent highly paid people from benefiting more than the average person, or family.2 For tax-year 2020, income limits on Roth IRA contributions begin to kick in at:

  • $124,000 for single people and heads of households.
  • $196,000 for married people filing joint tax returns.

If you earn above those income limits, the amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA gradually tapers off according to a formula described below. The accompanying table shows how Roth IRA contributions taper off as your income rises. In 2020, if your income is at or above the maximum – $139,000 if you’re single, $206,000 if you’re married3 – you won’t be able to contribute to a Roth IRA, though you can still use a traditional IRA. Two more key points are worth noting about Roth IRA income limits:

  • Your modified adjusted gross income is what’s used for Roth IRA calculations. For more, read “What is Modified Adjusted Gross Income?
  • If you’re married but file separate tax returns, you’re disqualified from using a Roth IRA if your income is more than $10,000.

 

2020 Income Limits for Roth IRA Contributions

  2020 Income Contribution Limit
Single, head of household, and married people filing taxes separately but not living together Below $124,000
Maximum
$124,000 to $138,999 Variable depending on income level
$139,000 and above Zero
Married people living together but filing taxes separately Below $10,000 Variable depending on income level
$10,000 and above Zero
Married people filing taxes jointly, and qualifying widows & widowers Below $196,000 Maximum
$196,000 to $205,999 Variable depending on income level
$206,000+ Zero

Source: IRS

 

The chart shows, for example, that a single person whose income is under $124,000 can contribute the maximum amount to their Roth IRA.

 

 

Roth IRA Contribution Limits

For 2019 and 2020, the maximum you can contribute to a Roth IRA (or a traditional IRA) is $6,000 ($7,000 if you are over 50).4

 

That’s a combined maximum, across all your IRA accounts. It’s up to you to decide how you want to split your contributions within that limit: you could, for example, put $3,000 into each account, or you could opt to contribute more to one account than the other. You can’t contribute more than you earn, so if you earn less than the Roth IRA contribution limit for your age, your Roth IRA contribution limit is effectively your total income. 

 

How to Calculate Your Roth IRA Contribution Limit

To figure out your Roth IRA contribution limit, you first need to calculate your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), not taxable income. MAGI is essentially your adjusted gross income (AGI) with certain adjustments added back in. Which adjustments you add back are different depending on the tax purpose involved. For calculating Roth IRA contribution limits, you’ll add back any of the following that apply to you:

  • Traditional IRA contributions.
  • Taxable Social Security payments.
  • Deductions you took for student loan interest or tuition.
  • Excluded foreign income.
  • Half of any self-employment taxes.
  • Interest from Series EE savings bonds used to pay for higher education expenses.
  • Losses from a publicly traded partnership.
  • Passive income or loss.
  • Rental losses.
  • The exclusion for adoption expenses.

In practice, there may be little difference between AGI and MAGI for many people.

 

Using the Roth IRA Contribution Limit Formula

Once you have your MAGI, these four steps constitute the formula for calculating your Roth IRA contribution limit:

  1. Subtract from your MAGI the amount from the table above that qualifies for the maximum Roth IRA contribution.
  2. Divide the result by $15,000, or $10,000 if you are married and filing a joint return.
  3. Multiply the maximum contribution limit by the result from step 2. 
  4. Subtract step 3’s result from the maximum contribution limit. This is your contribution limit.5

 

Next, let’s plug numbers into the formula to show how it works. Suppose you are a single person younger than 50 with a MAGI of $130,000. Here’s the formula in action:

  1.  $130,000 - $124,000 = $6,000
  2.  $6,000 ÷ $15,000 = 0.4
  3.  $6,000 x 0.4 = $2,400
  4.  $6,000 - $2,400 = $3,600.

 

So, in the example above, $3,600 is the maximum you can contribute to a Roth IRA in 2020 if you’re single and earn $130,000. As this shows, however, calculating MAGI and Roth IRA contribution limits can be complex, so it may be wise to seek advice from a professional tax adviser.

 

What if I Exceed my Roth IRA Contribution Limit?

It can be easy to exceed your Roth IRA contribution limit. It might be because your income for the year was higher than you expected, so your contribution limit was lower; or, at the opposite end of the scale, you earned less than the amount you put into your Roth IRA. Or perhaps you simply lost track of how much you had contributed over the year. 

 

If you accidentally pay more into your Roth IRA than your contribution limit, the government will tax the excess amount at 6% each year as long as it remains in the account. To avoid the tax, you can withdraw the excess amount along with any earnings, though if you are under 59½ or have held the Roth IRA for less than 5 years you will pay a penalty. You may also have to pay tax on any earnings from the excess amount.6

 

The Takeaway

A Roth IRA can be an attractive way of saving for retirement. However, the rules are complex, and it may not be suitable for everyone. When making major saving and retirement planning decisions, it’s always wise to consult a professional tax adviser.

Megan Doyle

Frances Coppola spent 17 years in the financial services industry before becoming a noted writer and speaker on banking, finance and economics. Her work appears regularly in the Financial Times, Forbes and a range of financial industry publications.

 

All Credit Intel content is written by freelance authors and commissioned and paid for by American Express. 

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