Most people who sell assets are familiar with the income tax concept of “basis.” Basis, in its simplest form, is essentially what you pay for something. When you sell an asset, you’re not taxed on the sales proceeds. Instead, you pay tax on the difference between your net sales proceeds and your cost basis. Net sales proceeds is equal to gross sales proceeds reduced by any selling expenses. Cost basis is equal to purchase price plus increases to the purchase price less accumulated depreciation or amortization. Basis, therefore, reduces the amount of otherwise taxable gain.
The concept of “basis” also applies to traditional IRA’s. When you make a contribution to a traditional IRA, your contribution is either deductible, partially deductible, or nondeductible depending upon (1) whether you’re an active participant in a qualified retirement plan, (2) the amount of your modified adjusted gross income, and (3) your tax filing status. To the extent that any portion of your IRA contributions are deductible, they aren’t credited with any basis. Nondeductible IRA contributions, on the other hand, are counted as, and increase, traditional IRA basis.
So what’s so important about basis when it comes to traditional IRA’s? As stated above, basis reduces the amount of otherwise taxable gain. When might you have taxable gain with IRA’s? Unlike assets which can result in a taxable gain when you sell them, traditional IRA’s can result in taxable gains when you take distributions from them. As we’ve learned from previous blog posts, a Roth IRA conversion is, in essence, an IRA distribution.
Similar to assets whereby you’re taxed on the difference between your net sales proceeds and your cost basis, with traditional IRA’s, you’re taxed on the difference between the value of your distribution and your basis in the distribution. How do you know what your basis is in your IRA? Keeping in mind that IRA basis originates from nondeductible IRA contributions, you need a way to keep track of your nondeductible IRA contributions. IRS has provided us with this ability with Form 8606 – Nondeductible IRAs. Form 8606 is your scorecard for keeping track of your traditional IRA basis.
Form 8606 is required to be filed with your tax return in any year that you make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA. In addition to reporting the amount of your current year’s nondeductible traditional IRA contributions on line 1, you are required to report your total basis in traditional IRAs on line 2. Total basis in traditional IRA’s represents your cumulative nondeductible IRA contributions reduced by any previously used basis.
Since Form 8606 isn’t required to be filed every year, it’s easy to forget about basis when calculating the amount of taxable IRA distributions, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve made nondeductible contributions to your traditional IRA and you haven’t retained copies of all of your tax returns. This can be especially problematic if you haven’t used a professional income tax preparer to prepare your income tax returns in all of the years that you’ve made nondeductible traditional IRA contributions or if you’ve changed tax preparers over the years. Tracking IRA basis can be further complicated to the extent that the basis in your traditional IRA is different for federal vs. state income tax purposes as a result of state vs. federal deductible IRA calculation differences such as has been the case in California.
If you’re considering doing a Roth IRA conversion, don’t forget about Form 8606 – your traditional IRA basis scorecard. It will reduce the amount of your taxable Roth IRA conversions and, in turn, will reduce the amount of income tax you will otherwise pay.