Q&A: Here’s a retirement tax trick: the mega backdoor Roth IRA

Dear Liz: I am a 32-year-old married father of two. My income is high enough to contribute to my kids’ 529 and custodial brokerage accounts. I’ve been able to max out my 401(k), health savings account and backdoor Roths for my spouse and myself. Next, I’m debating between starting a life insurance retirement plan (LIRP) or making after-tax 401(k) contributions because my plan allows mega backdoor Roth conversions. What are your thoughts on LIRP versus mega backdoor Roth?

Answer: Mega backdoor Roths are such a sweet deal for higher-income workers that you probably should take advantage if you want to put aside more tax-advantaged money for retirement.

For those who are unfamiliar: Roth IRAs allow tax-free withdrawals in retirement, but only people with incomes under certain limits can contribute directly to a Roth. The ability to contribute phases out for married couples filing jointly with modified adjusted gross incomes of $204,000 to $214,000.

There’s no income limit on conversions, however, so people with higher incomes can contribute to a traditional IRA and then convert the contribution to a Roth IRA in what’s known as a backdoor Roth. Conversions typically trigger income taxes on any pretax contributions or earnings, so this tactic works best if the person doesn’t have a large existing IRA.

The mega backdoor Roth takes this strategy to a new level.

Some employer 401(k) plans allow participants to make after-tax contributions that can then be converted to a Roth. The amounts that can be contributed and converted are substantial. Although the pretax limit for contributions is $20,500 for workers under 50 in 2022, the total amount that can be contributed by employees and employers to a 401(k) is $61,000.

The amount you can put in after tax would be reduced by any company match you get. Assuming there’s no match, you could contribute $20,500 to the pretax plan and an additional $40,500 to the after-tax plan this year.

A mega backdoor Roth would allow you to build up a substantial fund of tax-free retirement money without the costs and other potential disadvantages of a LIRP, which requires you to buy a permanent life insurance policy. With a LIRP, you would use the cash value of the policy to hold investments that you could access tax free through withdrawals or loans.

LIRPs can make sense if you otherwise need permanent life insurance, but many people need only term insurance, which is much less expensive.

If you’re still interested in a LIRP, consult with a fee-only, fiduciary financial advisor first to ensure you understand how these work and determine if they’re a good solution for you.

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