Do I Need Earned Income for Roth IRA Contributions?

Learn what types of income qualify for a Roth IRA

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Roth individual retirement accounts (IRAs) are more flexible than other retirement accounts in many regards, including early withdrawals, but they do require you to earn income.

Many people open Roths for the accounts’ unique tax advantages. Unlike a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA is funded with after-tax dollars. Those earnings then grow tax-free for distributions during your retirement years.

Learn more about the requirements to contribute to a Roth IRA, including the cap on adjusted gross income and the maximum that can be invested annually, and about the sliding scale for how much can be invested based on adjusted gross income (AGI). We’ll also review an option for spouses who do not have earned income but still want to contribute to Roth IRAs.

Key Takeaways

  • You must have earned income to qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA.
  • In 2022, individuals who qualify to make a maximum contribution to a Roth IRA can contribute up to $6,000, or $7,000 if they are over age 50.
  • Earned income can include taxable alimony or other spousal maintenance, nontaxable combat pay, and some taxable non-tuition.
  • A spousal Roth IRA allows a working spouse to contribute for a non-working spouse as long as the couple files a joint tax return.

Roth IRAs Require Earned Income

In contrast to a traditional IRA, which does not require that you have a taxable income, you must have earned taxable compensation to contribute to a Roth IRA. There are, however, no age restrictions on when you can contribute to a Roth.

So you can contribute funds to a Roth IRA if you are a teenager who earns taxable income or if you are a 75-year-old who still earns and reports taxable income. As long as you have taxable income within the IRS limits, you are eligible to contribute—with one exception. If you are a spouse who earns no income, your spouse can contribute the maximum allowable limit for you.

The IRS does have a cap on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) in order to qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA. So if you earn more than the limit, you may not be able to contribute the full IRS maximum, or you may not be eligible to contribute at all.

What Counts as Earned Income?

The most common forms of earned income are compensation earned from working for an employer or net earnings made by someone who is self-employed. Other income that can be used to fund a Roth IRA include:

  • Taxable alimony or other maintenance received under a divorce decree
  • Nontaxable combat pay
  • Certain taxable non-tuition and stipend payments

Compensation does not include earnings from rental property or other real estate holdings, pension or annuity income, deferred compensation, or income from a partnership in which you do not provide income-producing services.

Roth IRA Contribution Limits

While there are no income limits for eligibility to contribute to a traditional IRA, the amount that can be contributed to a Roth IRA is reduced when your AGI reaches certain levels, and eligibility is completely phased out above a certain income.

The modified AGI limits and the contribution limits are sometimes adjusted for inflation by the IRS. The table below provides a summary of Roth IRA eligibility and contribution limits for 2022 according to your tax filing status.

Filing Status 2022 Modified Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) 2022 Contribution Limits
Single, head of household, married filing separately (and did not live with spouse at  any time during the year)  Less than $129,000 $6,000 ($7,000 if age 50 or older) or AGI, whichever is smaller
At least $129,000 but less than $144,000 Reduced contribution limit
$144,000 or more Ineligible to contribute
Married filing separately and lived with spouse at any time during  the year Less than $10,000 $10,000 or more Reduced contribution limit Ineligible to contribute
Married filing jointly or qualified widow(er) Less than $204,000 $6,000 ($7,000 if age 50 or older) or AGI, whichever is smaller
At least $204,000, but less than $214,000 Reduced contribution limit
$214,000 or more Ineligible to contribute

Investors who are ineligible to contribute to a Roth IRA have other options for getting tax advantages from retirement accounts, including traditional IRAs or employer-sponsored retirement savings plans such as a 401(ks). People who earn money from self-employment or side jobs can set up a simplified employee pension IRA (SEP-IRA), even if they also work for an employer and participate in a 401(k) program.

If your income exceeds the limit to contribute to a Roth IRA, but you want the tax advantages it offers, consider a strategy known as a “backdoor Roth IRA.” This involves contributing funds to a traditional IRA and converting those funds to a Roth IRA.

With a backdoor Roth IRA, you’ll have to pay the taxes on the pretax funds that are converted, but the funds then get the tax-free growth and tax-free distribution advantages that the Roth account provides.

There are no required minimum distributions after traditional IRA funds are converted to Roth IRA funds.

An Exception: The Spousal Roth IRA

For married couples who file taxes jointly, there is an exception to the rule requiring you have earned income to contribute to an IRA. A spousal Roth IRA allows a working spouse to fund a Roth IRA for a non-working spouse.

The working spouse can contribute the maximum amount allowed for themselves as well as the maximum amount allowed for their spouse. This means a married couple that qualifies under the income limit guidelines can contribute up to $12,000 annually ($6,000 for each person) or $14,000 if they are over 50 years old if they have that amount in earned income.

Andrew Crowell, vice chairman of wealth management at D.A. Davidson, a brokerage firm, told The Balance in a phone interview that spousal Roth IRAs and the backdoor Roth strategy are widely used by the firm’s clients. Conversions are also popular, Crowell said, because Roth accounts provide tax-free distributions and have no minimum required distributions at age 70½.

Can You Contribute to a Roth IRA?

If you have earned income for the current tax year that does not exceed the income limits previously mentioned, you can contribute the lesser of $6,000 ($7,000 if you’re over age 50) or the total amount that you earned.

For those whose earnings exceed the limits for a maximum contribution, the IRS provides a worksheet to help determine how much they can contribute to a Roth IRA.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can I convert part of my IRA to a Roth IRA when I have no earned income?

You can convert all or part of a traditional IRA to a Roth, regardless of income. You will owe taxes on the amount of money that is converted from a traditional IRA. Consider consulting with a tax professional before converting funds.

Does it matter when I earned the income?

You must have earned income for the same tax year as your contribution to a Roth IRA. You can contribute for a specific tax year up through the deadline for filing taxes for that year, which is typically mid-April of the following year.

What happens if I contribute to a Roth IRA without earned income?

It is considered an excess contribution, and the IRS assesses a 6% penalty each year until that amount is corrected. The excess can be withdrawn or assigned to the next tax year if you have already filed your taxes. Keep in mind that a spousal Roth IRA allows a working spouse to contribute to a Roth for a non-working spouse as long as all other eligibility requirements are met.

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