Traditional and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): A Primer (CRS RL34397)

In response to concerns over the adequacy of retirement savings, Congress has created incentives to encourage individuals to save for retirement through a variety of retirement plans. Some retirement plans are employer-sponsored, such as 401(k) plans, and others are established by individual employees, such as Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).

This report describes the primary features of two common retirement savings accounts that are available to certain individuals—traditional and Roth IRAs. Although the accounts have many features in common, they differ in some important aspects. Both traditional and Roth IRAs offer tax incentives to encourage individuals to save for retirement. Contributions to traditional IRAs may be tax deductible for taxpayers who (1) are not covered by a retirement plan at their place of employment or (2) have income below specified limits. Contributions to Roth IRAs are not tax deductible and eligibility is limited to those with incomes under specified limits.

The tax treatment of distributions from traditional and Roth IRAs differs. Distributions from traditional IRAs are generally included in taxable income, whereas certain distributions from Roth IRAs are not included in taxable income. Some distributions may be subject to an additional 10% tax penalty, unless the distribution is for a reason specified in the Internal Revenue Code (e.g., distributions from IRAs after the individual is aged 59½ or older are not subject to the early withdrawal penalty).

Individuals may roll over eligible distributions from other retirement accounts (such as an account balance from a 401(k) plan upon leaving an employer) into IRAs. Rollovers preserve retirement savings by allowing investment earnings on the funds in the retirement accounts to accrue on a tax-deferred basis, in the case of traditional IRAs, or a tax-free basis, in the case of Roth IRAs.

The Retirement Savings Contribution Credit (also known as the Saver’s Credit) is a nonrefundable tax credit of up to $1,000 ($2,000 if married filing jointly). It was authorized in 2001 to encourage retirement savings among individuals with income under specified limits.

This report explains IRAs’ eligibility requirements, contribution limits, tax deductibility of contributions, and withdrawal rules, and it provides data on the accounts’ holdings. It also describes the Saver’s Credit and provisions enacted after the Gulf of Mexico hurricanes in 2005, the Midwestern storms in 2008, the hurricanes in 2012 and 2017, the California wildfires in 2017, certain other federally declared disasters occurring on or after January 1, 2018, and the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic to exempt distributions to those affected from the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

“Traditional and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs): A Primer,” CRS Report RL34397, August 20, 2020 (29-page PDFPDF)

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