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IRAs: What They Are

IRAs are easy to set up - but you have to take the initiative.
IRAs are tax-deferred personal retirement plans. But all IRAs are not alike. You can invest your IRA money entirely in annuities , in which case your IRA is an individual retirement annuity. There are two types of IRAs, traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs . And, as an added variation, traditional IRAs may be either deductible or nondeductible.
  • All traditional IRAs are tax deferred. That means you owe no tax on your earnings until you withdraw. If you qualify, you may also be able to deduct your contribution on your federal income tax return, deferring tax on that amount as well.
  • Roth IRAs are tax free if your account has been open at least five years and you're at least 59½ when you withdraw. That means you owe no tax at all on your earnings as they accumulate or when you withdraw.

Roth IRA


The only requirement for opening an IRA is having earned income - money you get for work you do. Your total annual contribution is limited to $6,000 in 2021, whether you put it all in one account or divide it between a traditional IRA and a Roth. Any amount you earn qualifies, and you can contribute as much as you want, up to the annual cap. But you can't contribute more than you earn. For example, if you earn $1,800 in a year, that's how much you can put in. And whether you earn $6,000 or $350,000, the top limit is the same. If you're 50 or older, you can also contribute an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 each year.


If your husband or wife doesn't work, but you do, you can contribute up to $6,000 in 2021 to a separate spousal account in your spouse's name. The advantage for the nonworking partner is being able to build an individual retirement fund.

Roth IRA


If you qualify, for the two types of IRAs with income restrictions, based on your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) , you'll have to choose among a traditional deductible IRA, a traditional nondeductible IRA, or a Roth IRA. The traditional deductible IRA has the strictest income limits, and the traditional nondeductible has none at all. The Roth is in between. In 2021, for example, you can deduct all of your IRA contribution if you're single, and your AGI is less than $66,000, even if you have a retirement plan where you work. You can deduct a gradually decreasing portion as your income gets closer to $76,000 and nothing if it's above $76,000. You can always deduct the full amount of your contribution if you're not covered by a retirement plan at your job. You're eligible for a full Roth contribution if you're single and your AGI is less than $125,000. With an AGI between that amount and $140,000, you can put a gradually declining portion of your contribution into a Roth and the balance into a traditional IRA if you wish. For a married couple filing a joint return, the income limits for a deductible traditional IRA begin at $105,000, and are phased out at $125,000 for 2021. Those amounts are scheduled to increase over time. Either of you can deduct your contribution if you have no retirement plan of your own at work. But if your spouse has a plan, the amount you can deduct is reduced gradually if your joint income is over $198,000,and eliminated if it's over $208,000. Each of you qualifies to contribute the full $6,000 to a Roth IRA if your joint AGI is $198,000 or less, phased out up to $208,000.

Single or Married deductions


If you're 50 or older, you can make catch-up contributions to your IRA each year. In 2021, you can add an extra $1,000 a year to your account, on top of the standard contribution cap for the year. You're eligible whether or not you've contributed the maximum in earlier years.


It's easy to open an IRA. All you do is fill out a relatively simple application provided by the financial institution you choose. IRAs are self directed, which means that you decide how to invest the money, and you're also responsible for following the rules that govern the accounts. Basically, that means putting in only the amount you're entitled to each year. You must also report your annual contribution to the IRS, on your basic return if it's deductible and on Form 8606 if it's not. You can invest your IRA money in either a fixed annuity or variable annuity . You can move money among the separate account funds within your IRA without owing income tax on any gains. But there may be a limit on the number of exchanges you can make without a fee, and there may also be a charge for moving money out of a fixed annuity or a fixed account within your variable annuity.


You have until April 15 — the day tax returns are due—to open an IRA and make the deposit for the previous tax year. You can put money into your IRA in a lump sum, or spread your contribution out over up to 15 months. You may put in the whole amount the first day you can, January 2 of the tax year you're making the contribution for. Or, if you're like most people, you're more apt to make the deposit on the last possible day. The most practical solution may be weekly or monthly contributions through payroll deductions. There are no guarantees when you invest this way, any more than there are when you invest a lump sum. You could lose money, especially in the short term. But if your investments do well, adding to them regularly can give your IRA value a real boost.

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