What Is a Roth IRA?

A Roth IRA is a type of individual retirement account that allows tax-free growth and withdrawals. But you pay income tax on your contributions into it. You can start making income tax-free withdrawals from a Roth IRA six months after your 59th birthday and have had your account for five years.

How Does a Roth IRA Work?

You contribute money to your Roth IRA to grow your investments. These contributions are limited to a maximum amount each year and are not tax deductible like traditional IRA contributions. But your withdrawals are free from federal income taxes. You also don’t have to pay taxes on the growth of your investments.

You have to meet certain qualifications to open a Roth IRA.

First, you have to have “earned income” — income you received from working rather than investment income, Social Security benefits, child support or other nonwork-related sources.

Next, you have to be under the income limit allowed for enrolling in a Roth IRA.

How Much Can You Contribute to a Roth IRA?

How much you can contribute to a Roth IRA each year is based on your income tax filing status and your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). Your MAGI is your household income plus any tax-exempt interest income and certain other deductions you claimed on your tax return.

The maximum limit you can contribute for 2020 is $6,000 if you are younger than 50 and $7,000 if you are 50 or older.

2020 Roth IRA Contribution Limits
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)Less than $196,000Up to the limit:

$6,000 if younger than 50

$7,000 if 50 or older
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)$196,000 to $206,000A reduced amount
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)$206,000 or more$0
Single, head of household or married filing separately (and not living with your spouse at any time in the year)Less than $124,000Up to the limit:

$6,000 if younger than 50

$7,000 if 50 or older
Single, head of household or married filing separately (and not living with your spouse at any time in the year)$124,000 up to $139,000A reduced amount
Single, head of household or married filing separately (and not living with your spouse at any time in the year)$139,000 and above$0.00
Married filing separately (and living with your spouse at any time in the year)Less than $10,000A reduced Amount
Married filing separately (and living with your spouse at any time in the year)$10,000 or more$0

The deadline for making an annual contribution is the same as for filing your taxes for the year. For example, the deadline for making a 2020 Roth IRA contribution is April 15, 2021.

How to Open a Roth IRA

Like a traditional IRA, you have to open a Roth IRA on your own through a financial institution or a licensed financial professional.

Where You Can Open a Roth IRA
Banks offer more security for your IRA but your investment growth may be limited. Most bank Roth IRAs tend to be tied to certificates of deposit which typically provide a lower return on investment than other options.
Brokerage Firms (Including Online Brokers)
Online brokers and other firms allow you to invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds. These typically provide a greater return on investment so your Roth IRA may grow more quickly. But these may also prove more volatile than an IRA through a bank.
These services, often provided by major investment institutions, can help you select the best investments based on your goals and timeline for retirement along with your current income.

If you are unsure of the best route for your retirement investment plan, it may be helpful to discuss your options with a licensed professional financial advisor.

Rules for Roth IRA Distribution and Withdrawal

You can take money out of your Roth IRA at any time without having to pay income taxes on the withdrawal. But you may have to pay an early withdrawal penalty or pay taxes on your Roth IRA’s earnings if you don’t meet certain rules.

Roth IRA Withdrawal Rules
  • Withdrawals are made six months after you turn 59
  • You must have had the Roth IRA account for at least five years
  • Your withdrawal meets a legal exception under the law

There are some exceptions that allow you to withdraw money early and still avoid penalties and taxes on earnings. These can apply if you are not yet 59 and six months or have not had your Roth IRA for five years.

Roth IRA Early Withdrawal Exceptions
  • A beneficiary withdraws money after your death
  • First-time home purchase — up to $10,000 over your lifetime
  • Paying for health insurance premiums if you are unemployed
  • Paying for unreimbursed medical expenses if you are unemployed
  • Used for qualified birth or adoption expenses
  • Used for qualified education costs
  • You become disabled

Benefits and Advantages of Roth IRAs

Roth and traditional IRAs are the most common types of individual retirement accounts. Both offer tax advantages, but their benefits vary from one another.

Roth IRA Advantages
  • There’s no age limit for opening a Roth IRA as long as you have earned income to invest.
  • Unlike a traditional IRA, Roth IRAs have no required minimum distributions — a minimum amount you have to withdraw every year.
  • You can avoid all federal taxes on your money if you have a Roth IRA for at least five years and are 59 and six months or older.
  • You can make your annual contributions in a lump sum or spread throughout the year.
  • You can withdraw your money at any time without having to pay income taxes or penalties — but you may have to pay taxes on earnings.
  • You have until the April 15 tax deadline to make contributions for the previous year.

Alternatives to Roth IRAs

Roth IRAs are one of the four main types of individual retirement accounts available for retirement planning. The other types are traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs.

Choosing the one that’s best for you may depend on your income level and where and how you are employed.

Other IRA Options
Traditional IRA
Traditional and Roth IRAs are somewhat similar. The biggest difference is in the type of tax advantage you receive from investing. The biggest difference may be that a traditional IRA allows you to take advantage of tax breaks as you contribute to your retirement account, while a Roth IRA allows for tax-free withdrawals in the future.
Employers or self-employed workers are allowed to set up SEP (Simplified Employee Pension) IRAs. These are similar to a traditional IRAs but it allows employer contributions and gives employers a tax deduction for those contributions.
Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) IRAs provide a retirement savings plan for small businesses with 100 or fewer workers. Employees can contribute a maximum of $13,500 in 2020. Their employer can either make a minimum 2 percent contribution or can contribute up to an optional 3 percent.
Last Modified: February 12, 2021

4 Cited Research Articles

  1. U.S. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 28). Traditional and Roth IRAs. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/traditional-and-roth-iras
  2. U.S. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 10). Roth IRAs. Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/roth-iras
  3. U.S. Internal Revenue Service. (2020, January 9). Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). Retrieved from https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/individual-retirement-arrangements-iras
  4. Cornell Law School. (n.d.). 26 U.S. Code Section 408 - Individual Retirement Accounts. Retrieved from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/26/408