Roth IRAs: Everything a Doctor Needs to Know BEFORE Investing

Roth IRAs: Everything a Doctor Needs to Know Before Investing

By Katherine Vessenes, JD, CFP®, RFC
Founder, MD Financial


If you have been following our articles, you know we have been discussing Roth 401k/403bs, IRAs and Roth IRAs. A lot of our doctors are confused about how they work and when they can use them. You can get more information on Roth 401k/403bs here and more on IRAs here. Today, we are going to address what doctors need to know about Roth IRAs. 

Roth IRAs first became available in 1997 and were named after the late Senator William Roth from Delaware. The word “Roth” has become synonymous with a tax-free investment. 

Here are a few basics about Roth IRAs:

1.    You must be working in order to contribute. The rules apply to “earned income.” If all of your income is passive, from investments or trusts for example, you won’t qualify.

2.    All contributions to Roth IRAs are made after tax. This means you cannot take a tax deduction for investing into a Roth IRA, like you can in a traditional IRA.

3.    The contributions go in after taxes, grow tax-deferred until age 59 ½. After 59 ½ you can withdraw your earnings, and the original investment tax-free, or you can leave them in the account and they will continue to grow tax-free.

4.    Your contribution is limited to your earned income or the annual IRS contribution limit, whichever is lower. Last year, 2018, that was $5,500 for doctors who are under 50, and $6,500 for those who are over 50. This year, 2019, the maximum is $6,000 for doctors who are under 50, and $7,000 for those who are over 50.

5.    You can make a contribution up to the tax deadline of the following tax year (Dec. 31st if doing Backdoor Roth.) If you are reading this for the 2018 tax season, you could contribute until April 15th of 2019. If you believe the market is going up, we recommend investing as early in the year as possible to avoid paying taxes on the gains of your investment. If you are worried about a down or choppy market, you might want to wait as long as possible to invest, believing you would have a little more upside potential. 

6.    Once you reach the age of 70 ½, you are no longer eligible to make a traditional IRA contribution even if you are working. However, you can make a Roth IRA contribution after the age of 70 ½ assuming you are still working.

7.    Doctors have to be careful about investing directly into a Roth IRA, because the IRS has limits on whether you can directly invest, depending on your income. Married doctors, filing joint tax returns, must make less than $189,000 this year, 2018, in order to qualify for a direct contribution. Single doctors need to make less than $120,000 for the year, 2018. As a result, in our practice, it is usually just residents and fellows who can make direct Roth IRA contributions. 

8.    Roth IRA accounts are held at custodians. This could be a bank, like Bank of America or Wells Fargo, or an investment company/brokerage firm like Fidelity, Vanguard, or TD Ameritrade, to name just a few.

9.    Just like a traditional IRA, you are able to select any investments that your custodian offers inside the Roth IRA. The common investment options include basic cash or money market accounts, annuities, stocks, bonds, mutual funds and real estate funds. The choices can get more exotic with some custodians and might include precious metals such as gold or silver or stock in closely held companies. 

10. Transactions in the Roth IRA are not subject to any tax while still in the account. This includes interest on the bonds, dividends on the stocks, or capital gains.

11. You can have more than one Roth IRA account and it is not unusual for us to see doctors with numerous ones held at different institutions. We don’t recommend this because it becomes more difficult to track them and to manage the investments. Usually it is best to combine all of your Roth IRAs into one account and use a consistent investment philosophy on all your investments.

12. Unlike traditional IRAs, you are not required to make minimum distributions from Roth IRAs once you turn 70 ½. In fact, you are not required to make any distributions at all. You are required to make distributions called RMDs from Roth 401k/403b accounts.

13. It is possible to have both a Roth IRA and a Roth 401k/403b at work. If you are under 50 and maximizing your Roth 401k/403b plan, then you could be setting aside an additional $19,000 in 2019. If you’re over 50 you could set aside an additional $25,000 in 2019 ($19,000 + $6,000 catch up) per year to grow tax-free.


Here are a few ways to get funds into a Roth IRA:

1.    The easiest, unfortunately rarely works for our attending physicians and dentists: If you are married, filing joint returns, and make less than $189,000 in 2018, then you can make a direct Roth Contribution. If you are single, the cut off is $120,000 in 2018.

2.     If you have an existing IRA, you can do a Roth conversion. This means moving the funds from the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This will trigger income taxes (but not the 10% penalty) on all the funds that are converted. The taxes are due on the tax deadline of the year following the conversion. You can convert an unlimited amount using this technique, but you also have to be prepared to pay the taxes the following April. This is a common strategy when we believe you’re in a lower tax bracket now than in the future. We often can do this in stages to avoid a huge tax bill in one year for doctors with large traditional IRAs.

3.     A common strategy with our doctors, is to do a Backdoor Roth contribution. In this case, assuming your income is over the limits, we would first fund a non-deductible traditional IRA, or one that is invested after taxes have been paid. We would then convert it to a Roth IRA. Assuming it is done correctly, there would be no additional income taxes due. Talk with your tax advisor about filling out IRS form 8606 when you do this strategy. This technique only works in certain cases: 

This works great when you do not have any funds in a traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or SIMPLE IRA that has not been taxed. The reason is, most tax advisors believe you cannot have an existing traditional IRA, SEP IRA, or SIMPLE IRA, which has not been taxed, and use this strategy. If you do, the IRS requires a “pro rata” calculation on the after-tax IRA amount converted which means those funds are taxed twice! Something that makes this strategy not as favorable. So, when clients have small traditional IRAs that have never been taxed, we sometimes recommend converting them first to a Roth IRA before ever doing a Backdoor Roth contribution.

If you follow our articles, you know I firmly believe, there are pros and cons to every investment, including a Roth IRA. Here are a few items all physicians and dentists should consider before investing in a Roth.

Starting with the positives:

1.    The earnings or growth inside the Roth IRA are not taxable unless withdrawn before age 59 1/2. This can be a significant advantage, as it leaves more funds growing without the headwind of taxes.

2.    A Roth IRA is sometimes protected from creditors, which is an important consideration for our doctors who are concerned about asset protection strategies. The levels of the protection vary from state to state.

3.    The best reason to use a Roth IRA is tax-free income in retirement. We believe it is crucial to plan to have some income that is tax-free.

4.    The Roth IRA is one of the few tax shelters left. Almost all of the others have been disallowed by Congress!

5.    You can transfer a Roth IRA at death to your heirs without any income taxes, unlike a traditional IRA. However, Roth IRAs could have estate taxes in some cases.

6.    These can be a great gift for your children or grandchildren if they have earned income.


A few years ago, we had a plastic surgeon from Detroit who had triplets. Before they were 6 months old, they had already earned money starring in some ads. We recommended taking their pay and opening a Roth IRA for each of them. Let’s assume they each made a one time $5,000 for the photo shoot and they make 7.2% per year on their investments. That $5,000 will grow to $1.3 million, tax-free, by the time they are 80! A very nice gift.

On the negative side:

1.    Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to ordinary income tax rates on the growth in the year of distribution, along with the 10% penalty previously discussed.  This makes them relatively illiquid.

2.    If you withdraw from a Roth IRA, it could be considered a taxable event depending on various factors.

3.    Unless you are converting an existing traditional IRA to a Roth, you can only invest a limited amount each year: $6,000 for doctors under 50 and $7,000 for those who are older, in 2019. For most of our clients this is just a drop in the bucket for what they will need in retirement. 

4.    If you do convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA and you are under the age of 59 ½, the taxes will have to come out of pocket. After you are over the age of 59 ½, you can deduct the taxes from the IRA as you convert.

If you are thinking about doing a Backdoor Roth contribution or a Roth conversion, we strongly recommend getting some good advice to avoid the IRS pit-falls and penalties.

Takeaway: If you can tie up funds until retirement, then a Roth IRA might be a great choice for you to get tax-free income in retirement.

If you have questions about your Roth IRAs or any other financial concerns, you can contact us at or look us up at

 © Katherine Vessenes 2019.

Katherine Vessenes, is the founder and CEO of MD Financial Advisors who serve 500 doctors from Hawaii to Cape Cod. An award-winning Financial Advisor, Attorney, Certified Financial Planner®, Registered Financial Consultant, author and speaker, she is devoted to bringing ethical, fiduciary advice to physicians and dentists. She can be reached at

If you’d like to hear our corresponding podcast on Roth IRAs, click the link below.