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I recently discovered that I can't contribute to a Roth IRA if I file taxes separately from my wife. What is the rationale for this rule?

mod edit http://money.cnn.com/retirement/guide/IRA_Roth.moneymag/index4.htm

Roth IRA contributions are limited by income level. In general, you can contribute to a Roth IRA if you have taxable income and your modified adjusted gross income is either:

  • less than $167,000 if you are married filing jointly
  • less than $105,000 if you are single, head of household, or married filing separately (if you did not live with your spouse at any time during the previous year)
  • less than $10,000 if you're married filing separately and you lived with your spouse at any time during the previous year.

...

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Of course this begs the question of why they give you the choice of filing jointly or separately in the first place. –  keshlam Mar 29 at 16:59
    
@keshlam if, for example, one of the spouses is not a US person and has a significant income - filing MFS exempts that income from US taxation. –  littleadv Jun 30 at 2:51

2 Answers 2

up vote 14 down vote accepted

From the Joint Committee on Taxation's General Explanation Of The Tax Reform Act of 1986, page 220:

Congress concluded that rules that encourage filing separate returns give rise to unnecessary complexity and place an unwarranted burden on the administration of the tax system.

Although this section of the document is not about IRAs, this act altered the IRA contribution rules among other things, and that statement appears to be the general philosophy: the government just doesn't like married couples filing separately, and essentially tries to punish them for doing so. Note that the same income limit applies for deductible contributions to Traditional IRAs, if either spouse is covered by an employer-provided plan (see here).

This page suggests one such incentive for the IRA in particular: "The rationale: the government doesn't want to give you a tax break in case your spouse is high-income". If one spouse is earning a lot -- for instance, over the Roth IRA limit -- and the spouses are living together, the other spouse is presumably reaping some of the benefits of those high earnings, so should not be allowed to benefit from the Roth, which is supposed to be unavailable to high earners. Also, if one spouse had earnings over the Roth IRA limit, they could possibly use financial sleight-of-hand to shift some of the income to the other spouse, thus enabling both to contribute.

I don't see that these reasons really justify the drastic nature of the penalty, but I think that's about as much logic as we can hope for in the tax code.

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I'm not sure. IRAs were meant to supplement retirement, and intentionally excluded high wage earners. But the restriction on people who file separately actually allows some families to skirt this issue. For example, let's say the household income is $500,000 a year. If the husband makes $250,000, and the wife makes $250,000, neither one can contribute to an IRA, whether they file jointly or separately. However, if the wife makes $495,000, and the husband makes $5,000, the husband can presumably contribute to an IRA if they file separately. If the couple remains married, both will benefit from the IRA's tax advantages at retirement.

At first glance the law seems to punish couples who file separately. But at second glance it seems to reward couples who file separately when only one of them earns significant wages - which is often the case with the super wealthy. But that couldn't be right. Congress would never specifically cater to the super wealthy. Of course not. Ever.

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The problem is that if the husband only earns $5K - by filing separately the $5K will not be taxable at all, being below the exemption and standard deduction limits (unless the wife itemizes). So what's the point in deductible IRA? None. Non-deductible however is always available regardless. –  littleadv Jun 29 at 23:07
    
Well, yeah, you are right with traditional IRAs. But, unless I am misunderstanding something, the $5,000 a year spouse of a high wage earner could put money into a Roth IRA (which is effectively untaxed because, as you mentioned, the $5,000 would not trigger a tax liability) and then later withdraw it in retirement, also untaxed (because it is in a Roth IRA). –  Tom Jun 30 at 2:22
    
but you can do a non-deductible IRA deposit and then roll it over to Roth IRA any time, so again - there's no benefit there. Filing MFS however carries a penalty since the spouse with higher income will pay more taxes and have less deductions/exemptions than if they file MFJ. I see no savings in this scenario. –  littleadv Jun 30 at 2:49
    
You can roll a traditional IRA over to a Roth IRA without paying taxes? If that is true, why doesn't everyone just do that? –  Tom Jun 30 at 2:57
    
Wait I get it. You aren't talking about a traditional IRA. But isn't the "non-deductible" contribution still subject to income limits when you roll it over to a Roth? I mean, I can't roll over a $50,000 "non-deductible" contribution from last year to this year's Roth, can I? –  Tom Jun 30 at 3:05

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