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5 Things You Didn't Know About IRAs

By Matthew Frankel, CFP® - Jan 17, 2016 at 6:22AM

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Even if you already have an IRA, these five facts may surprise you.

Photo: www.401kcalculator.org via Flickr

There are certain facts about IRAs that are widely known. For example, it's common knowledge that IRAs are tax-advantaged ways to save money for retirement. Other details such as the maximum contribution amounts and income limitations are readily available, as are the differences between Roth and traditional IRAs. However, here are five things you may be surprised to learn about IRAs.

You can still contribute to your IRA for 2015
It's a popular misconception that you need to make your IRA contributions before the end of the year. However, the fact is that you can contribute retroactively, all the way up until the tax deadline.

This means that if you weren't able to max out your IRA contributions for 2015, you have until April 18, this year's tax deadline, to do so. It also means that if you've never contributed to an IRA, you can open one now and contribute up to a total of $11,000 in 2016 ($13,000 if you're over 50) to cover both tax years -- as long as you get started soon.

There are ways to get money into a Roth IRA, even if you can't contribute directly
If you earn a high income, it may appear at first glance that the Roth IRA is not an option for you. For 2016, the ability to contribute to a Roth IRA phases out above an adjusted gross income of $184,000 for married joint filers, and $117,000 for singles. However, the IRS doesn't impose an income limit on Roth IRA conversions.

Known as the "backdoor" method of contributing to a Roth IRA, the process is relatively simple. Make a contribution to a traditional IRA, and then immediately convert your account to a Roth. If the transferred account had any deductible contributions, you'll need to pay income tax on them, but your withdrawals in retirement will be tax-free. Here's a more in-depth look at Roth IRAs and the backdoor method.

There are ways to avoid the early withdrawal penalty
In general, retirement savings cannot be withdrawn until you turn 59 1/2 years old, or else you'll face a 10% early withdrawal penalty. However, there are ways around this with IRA funds.

  • You can withdraw up to $10,000 no matter how old you are, if the money will be used toward the purchase of a first home for you or a relative.
  • You can withdraw any amount penalty-free to pay qualified higher education expenses.
  • Early withdrawals are permitted to pay health insurance premiums while you're unemployed, and to cover unreimbursed medical expenses in excess of 10% of your adjusted gross income.
  • If you become totally and permanently disabled, you can use your IRA savings without penalty.
  • If you agree to withdraw your IRA funds in "substantially equal payments" spread over the remainder of your life expectancy, you won't have to pay a penalty.
  • If you're a qualified military reservist and you are called up to active duty, you may be able to withdraw from your IRA early.

Perhaps most the most significant "exception," Roth IRAs are great for those who are worried about their money being tied up. Because you've already paid taxes on the money you deposit into your Roth IRA, you are free to withdraw your contributions at any time and for any reason. In a way, this makes a Roth IRA a great way to build up an emergency fund as well as a smart place for retirement savings. It's important to note, however, that any investment profits in your Roth IRA are treated in the same way as traditional IRA funds for early withdrawal purposes.

You can contribute for your spouse, even if they don't have any earned income
One of the core requirements for contributing to an IRA is having earned income. For 2015 and 2016, you can contribute $5,500 to an IRA or your total earned income, whichever is less. However, if your spouse doesn't work but you do, you can contribute to an IRA on their behalf, as long as your earned income is greater than both contributions.

For example, let's say that you earn $80,000 and your spouse is a stay-at-home parent. For the 2015 and 2016 tax years, you can contribute up to $11,000 to IRAs. It's important to note that you need two separate accounts even if you're making all of the contributions -- after all, the "I" in IRA stands for "individual."

You can have an IRA and a 401(k)
Another common misconception is that IRAs are only meant for people who don't have a retirement plan at work. However, you are free to invest in an IRA, even if you have a 401(k), pension, or other employer-sponsored retirement plan.

The only limitation is the amount of traditional IRA contributions you may be able to deduct. Of course, if you don't have a retirement plan at work, you can deduct all of your contributions. Single tax filers can still claim a full IRA deduction as long as their AGI is less than $61,000, while married couples can claim a full deduction if both spouses have access to retirement plans at work with AGI up to $98,000. If only one spouse has a retirement plan at work, the AGI limit rises to $184,000.

For a Roth IRA, whether or not you have a 401(k) or other retirement plan has no bearing on your ability to contribute. Rather, you are only limited by the income caps I discussed earlier. However, as we now know, there is a way to get around this.

Lots to learn about IRAs
IRAs are fantastic ways to save for retirement while reducing your tax liability now or in the future. There are several things to consider before deciding which kind of IRA is right for you, so it's wise to learn all you can about your options.

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