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10 IRA Rules Everyone Should Know

by Laura Adams

A common question I receive from Money Girl podcast listeners is about how to handle money in an IRA or Individual Retirement Arrangement.

Judy wants to know: Is it possible to loan money from my traditional IRA to my sister so she can buy a home?

Keep reading and I’ll give you the answer to this question plus 10 IRA rules that everyone should know.

Can You Take a Loan from an IRA?

IRA Rules everyone should know

Did you know these IRA rules?

It’s not possible to take a loan from any type of IRA-based retirement plan, such as a traditional IRA, Roth IRA, or SEP-IRA; however, you can take a withdrawal. If you’re younger than age 59½, taking a withdrawal from a traditional IRA does trigger income tax plus an additional 10% penalty.

If you withdraw money from a Roth IRA, the rules are different. Roth contributions can be withdrawn with no tax consequences (because they are made on an after-tax basis), but earnings are still subject to income tax plus the 10% penalty.

So Judy can take a hefty tax hit and make an early withdrawal from her traditional IRA for her sister, but I don’t recommend it. You can’t just pay a withdrawal back to an IRA. You’re subject to annual contribution limits.

10 IRA Rules Everyone Should Know

Here are 10 more important IRA rules that you should know:

Rule #1: You Don’t Have to Contribute Every Year

You choose whether you want to contribute to an IRA each year or not. If you open up a traditional or Roth IRA, but don’t make any additional contributions, your account stays open indefinitely.

Rule #2: An IRA Can Only Be Owned by an Individual

All retirement accounts must be owned by individuals, even if you’re married. There’s no such thing as a joint retirement account. You’re not allowed to mix funds either, by rolling over one person’s retirement money into another person’s retirement account.

Rule #3: You Need Earned Income to Qualify

If you have taxable compensation during the year—such as salaries, wages, tips, bonuses, commissions, and self-employment income—you’re eligible to contribute to a traditional or a Roth IRA. You can contribute an amount equal to your taxable compensation up to $5,000 or up to $6,000 if you’re age 50 or older.

Rule #4: Minors Qualify Too

Anyone with earned income can contribute to an IRA, no matter your age. So children can start saving for retirement as soon as they get their first part-time job. They can contribute as much as they earn, up to the maximum limit of $5,000 for 2011.

Rule #5: Spouses Without Earned Income May Qualify

If you’re married and file a joint tax return and just one of you has income, both of you can have an IRA. That helps an unemployed or stay-at-home spouse save for retirement.

Rule #6: You Can’t Make IRA Contributions for Someone Else

Each owner of a retirement account must qualify to open up and contribute to an IRA. So a parent can’t fund a retirement account on behalf of a child, for instance, if the child doesn’t have earned income. However, if a child does have earned income, the money to fund an IRA could come from a parent.

Rule #7: Roth IRA Qualification Depends on Income

The amount you can contribute to a Roth IRA is reduced or eliminated when your income reaches certain limits. For 2011, single taxpayers can’t have modified adjusted gross income that’s $120,000 or more. The Roth cutoff for married people who file a joint tax return is $177,000.

Rule #8: You Can Keep an Inactive Roth IRA

If you contributed to a Roth IRA in the past but now make too much money to be eligible, congratulations! But don’t let that stop you from saving for retirement—you can open up and contribute money to a traditional IRA instead, or contribute to your employer sponsored retirement plan. If your income falls below the Roth cutoff in the future, you can start making contributions again to the same Roth IRA.

Rule #9: You Can Have Multiple IRAs

You can open up and contribute to as many traditional and Roth IRAs as you like. However, your total contributions to all of them can’t exceed your annual allowable limit (which is $5,000 if you’re under 50 for 2011). You can make any combination of contributions in the same year, such as $1,000 to a Roth IRA and $4,000 to a traditional IRA.

Rule #10: You Can Have an IRA and a Workplace Retirement Account

You can contribute to a retirement plan at work—like a 401(k), 403(b), or 457—and still max out contributions to an IRA in the same year. However, if you or your spouse has a workplace retirement plan, the tax deduction for your traditional IRA contributions may be reduced or eliminated, depending on your income.

Chapter 7 of my book, Money Girl’s Smart Moves to Grow Rich, tells you everything you need to know about the different types of retirement accounts, no matter if you’re employed, self-employed, or unemployed. You can grab 2 free chapters now at SmartMovesToGrowRich.com.


Published or updated November 19, 2012.
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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shaun @ Smart Family Finance

Thanks for the reminder on some of the rules. I’ve come across a number of sites out there giving advice about IRAs that simply are not allowed or not true.

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2 Britt (Your Roth IRA)

It’s also important to know the IRA income limits. The IRS places cap limits on direct annual contributions to Roth IRAs as well as deductible Traditional IRA contributions. If you exceed those limits, you’re barred from making a direct contribution. But also, as you approach those limits, the size of your maximum annual contribution decreases or “phases out.” However, even those who earn too much can make non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions (as with the $100,000 income limit on Roth IRA conversions disappearing in 2010, you can convert those non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions to a Roth IRA if you wish!)

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3 Cherleen @ My Personal Finance Journey

I never knew minors are qualified for IRA until recently. Had I known that earlier, I should have done mine way back years ago. To make up for the loss, I am preparing my children for their IRA as early as now.

Thank you for sharing the information. Another great post!

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4 Matt

I didn’t know that minors qualified for an IRA. I will be opening one up for my daughter now so she has a nice chunk of change when she turns 30 (any earlier and I fear she would blow it)! Oh the joys of compounding interest.

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5 Ryan Guina

Matt, you can only open the IRA for your daughter if she has earned income – so if she makes money from babysitting, or other forms of employment, then she can contribute to an IRA. Otherwise she will not be eligible to do so.

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