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4 IRA Questions and Answers for Tax Filing Season

Can you contribute to a 401k and a deferred compensation plan? How about a 401k, a SEP, and a Roth? If you've got quirky tax-time questions, we've got answers.

Articles by Betterment Editors

By the Editorial Staff
Betterment Resource Center
Published: February 21, 2014 | Updated: April 23, 2019

Most people have a combination of retirement accounts that can make tax time a headache. Here, some quirky questions and practical answers.

Since this article was published, the 401(k) contribution limits have increased for 2019 to $19,000.

The road to April 15 is paved with many financial tasks, and one of the most important is taking care of your IRAs. Just a few basic steps can help you rev up these quiet accounts into real wealth builders—and Betterment is here to help you:

And as you encounter questions, remember that our excellent, on-site, live customer service reps can help you answer any puzzling questions that arise. Here, some recent brain-twisters from our customers that we’ve addressed, with the help of Jeffrey Levine, CPA, an IRA technical consultant with Ed Slott & Company, a well-respected training and advisory company that specializes in IRAs. Betterment’s Alex Benke, CFP®, also contributed to this article.¹

Q: I contribute $12,000 to my 403b at work, and I plan to make a Roth IRA contribution for 2013, and put away the max ($5,500). But I also have a SEP IRA because I run a small, Schedule C business (freelance, no employees). I earned about $15,000 from that last year, and I calculated that I can contribute about $2,900 to the SEP. I know that I can max out my Roth (I’m still within the income limits), but is my SEP contribution deductible?

A: The short answer is yes. You can contribute to a company plan (in this case your 403b) and a SEP (for your freelance income), as long as the total saved including employer contributions doesn’t exceed $51,000 for 2013. Right now, including the SEP, you’d be setting aside about $15,000. So unless your employer is matching at an extraordinary level, you can deduct your planned SEP contribution from your overall income (although it won’t reduce your self-employment tax, it will reduce your adjusted gross income). Please refer to IRS publication 560, which has all the details.

Q: I contributed a total of $13,000 to my 401(k) for 2013, but I quit my job in October. If I put $4,500 in a traditional IRA for 2013, can I deduct this from my income since I was not able to max out my 401(k)? I am single and my modified, adjusted gross income for 2013 is over $69,000 before taking the $4,500 traditional IRA contribution into account.

A: There are two components here. The first is that you could have fully funded your 401(k) as well as a traditional IRA, as long as you had enough earned income to fund the IRA ($5,500 or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older). You don’t need to limit yourself to $4,500.

Second, when you’re an active participant in an employer retirement plan—which you were in 2013—your ability to deduct IRA contributions for that year gets phased out, depending on your income and filing status. Since you’re single and you earned more than $69,000, and deductions for single filers are phased out from $59,000 to $69,000, you wouldn’t be able to deduct your IRA contribution. If you were married, the income limit is higher ($95,000).

Given that you probably can’t deduct your traditional IRA contribution for 2013, you could opt for funding a Roth IRA instead, depending your income and filing status (your ability to contribute to a Roth phases out starting at $112,000 up to $127,000). A Roth gives you the advantage of tax-free withdrawals when you retire (see IRS publication 590 for details).

Q: I changed jobs in January of 2014. I had one paycheck from my previous employer with a 401(k) contribution, so technically I was a “participant” in a 401(k) plan for 2014. Because of this technicality I cannot contribute to my new employer’s 401(k) until January of 2015. If I had started just three weeks earlier, at the end of December 2013, I’d be able to join my new 401(k) by June 2014.

So my question is: can I open a traditional IRA and contribute the max of $6,500 (I’m 55) and get the full tax deduction? It looks like I can still contribute to a Roth IRA, but I would like the tax deduction now.

A. It’s not clear why you’re in this position, because 401(k) rules should allow you to contribute to your new company plan. Perhaps it’s a restriction by your employer, but you should verify this “technicality.” Meanwhile, you’re wise to look for ways to keep your savings on target. Similar to the question above, whether you can deduct your IRA contributions when you’re also participating in a company plan depends on your income and your filing status. Your ability to deduct IRA contributions starts being phased out at $59,000 if you’re single, and $95,000 if you’re married. So you can contribute the $6,500, but you may not be able to deduct it (see IRS publication 590 for details).

Q: I have two retirement plans through work, including a 403b and a 457b, an institutional deferred compensation pension plan. I also have an IRA for myself and my wife. I believe there is a $51,000 total contribution limit, but does that apply to the IRAs as well? If the IRAs do factor in, is it just my IRA that counts toward the $51,000 limit, or does my wife’s as well?

A: You’re fortunate because you can sock away quite a bit of money with that combination of plans. With a 403b, the maximum contribution for 2014 is $52,000—including your employer’s match—although the total you can defer from your salary is $17,500 ($23,000 if you are 50 or older by the end of the year). Still, your 403b contributions have no impact on your 457b: The total you can save in your 457(b) plan for 2014 is $17,500 (excluding any catch-up contributions).

And yes, provided you have enough income, you can also make a contribution to an IRA (or possibly a Roth IRA) for both you and your wife. However, since it sounds like you’re what’s known as an “active participant” in a company plan this year, you may not be able to deduct your IRA contribution and/or your wife’s IRA contribution, depending on your overall income. See IRS Publication 590 for details under Kay Bailey Hutchison Spousal IRA.

¹Betterment is not a tax advisor and cannot give tax advice. Consult your tax professional to understand your individual situation.

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