My thanks for Natalie Choate for analyzing and pointing out the following information. Ms. Choate is truly a rock star in the world of IRA law, and much gratitude is owed to her by those of us in the financial community for her thorough analysis and commentary that she provides on such matters as this.
If you live long enough, you’re liable to see just about anything… the following is an example of the most extreme example I’ve ever heard of for using the tax law to your own advantage, deliberately flaunting the law for purposes of evading tax.
If you intentionally over-fund your Roth IRA, above the amount that you’re allowed to contribute for the tax year. The tax law allows you to remove the excess contribution by October 15 of the year following the year of contribution. If you do not remove the excess contribution (and the gains associated with it) by that point, you will be subject to a 6% excise tax on the excess contribution until the situation is rectified.
The situation can be rectified by either crediting the excess contribution to a future years’ contribution, or by withdrawing the excess amount prior to the deadline for the following year. Each year that you do not rectify the over-contribution you will be subject to the excise tax.
If you do not remove the excess contribution and the growth associated with it by October 15 of the year following the year of contribution, once you’ve been assessed the excise tax, your rectification is only required to the extent of the excess contribution – not the growth associated with it. The growth is no longer considered (under present tax law). In other words, you can rectify the excess contribution at that point by simply removing the excess, but the growth doesn’t have to be removed.
If you’re following the way this is working, you’ve probably figured out the gist of the “idea” we’re talking about here.
The Terrible, Terrible Idea
Here’s an example of the bad idea in play:
Let’s say you have no Roth IRA at all, but you have $20,000 that you’d like to invest. Furthermore, you don’t have compensation that would make you eligible to contribute anything to a Roth in the first place. Ignoring all convention, you open an IRA and contribute the $20,000, investing it in the latest hot stock. October 15 the following year rolls around, and your hot stock has doubled in value. (It should be noted that if your hot stock didn’t do so well, such as losing money, you could pull it out now and walk away with no consequence.)
Under the normal conventions, you could withdraw the entire $40,000 (your contribution plus your gain), but you’d have to pay ordinary income tax on the gain of $20,000. Doing this, you’d avoid the excess contribution 6% excise tax, $1,200.
However, in this terrible, terrible idea, you decide to wait until after October 15, and pay the excise tax on the over-contribution. Now you have three choices:
- If you’re otherwise eligible for contributions to the Roth in the current year, part of the excess contribution can be used (credited) as a regular contribution. You would then be subject to the excess contribution tax on the remainder of the over-contribution until it’s been used up by future credits (this is one of the right things you could do).
- If you’re not eligible for the contributions, you could withdraw the excess contribution at this point, along with the growth in the account, paying ordinary income tax on the growth. This is the other right thing you could do.
- If you’re up for a challenge (and possibly jail time), you could withdraw only the excess contribution and leave the growth in the account to grow tax free for the rest of your life. It probably won’t do you a lot of good in Alcatraz, though.
The Reason This is a Terrible Idea
The IRS is never in favor of kooky tricks like this that don’t work as the law intended. So what might happen? Well, the IRS could review your IRA account and disqualify it completely, on the basis that the custodian should never have allowed the excess contributions in the first place. In this manner, you’d be subject to tax on the growth in the account and the whole account would be null and void. Your IRA custodian is likely to be in hot water as well, as this would be a violation of the basic rules of IRAs.
Since the entire concept of the ability to withdraw the excess contribution is designed to help taxpayers resolve an honest mistake, abusing this provision is likely to be soundly disallowed. If the facts were known, (which they would be discovered eventually), the IRA is likely to be disallowed completely, and the abuse is likely to carry with it severe penalties.
The IRS doesn’t presently have remedy for the situation – and in the case where you honestly make a mistake and elect to leave the funds in the account (crediting against the current year, as in the first bullet point above) – it wouldn’t be too much of a leap for the IRS to disqualify distributions from the gains. This would become especially so if the activity I’ve described becomes a rampant abuse.
It’s best to follow the rules as intended and leave well enough alone.