With tax season behind us, advisors are looking for answers regarding IRAs and Ed Slott has some regarding rollovers and conversions, the step transaction doctrine, and Gold IRAs.

Explain the Step Transaction Doctrine


Over the last year, I have read a number of articles related to the strategy of funding a traditional, non-deductible IRA and immediately converting to a Roth IRA. (There are no other IRAs so no "cream in the coffe" and no tax would be due.) I recently came across an article that expressed some concern about this strategy citing that the IRS could apply the step transaction doctrine to combine both steps into a single transaction and tax it accordingly.

Could you review the "step transaction doctrine" and state whether this is an appropriate concern? If so, kindly explain how you would structure the conversion in order to alleviate the concern.

Thanks in advance.

Scott Welikey


The step transaction doctrine can be a bit complicated, but essentially, when applied it treats what are actually several independent steps as if they were a single transaction for tax purposes. 

There are three different tests which have been used to determine if the step transaction doctrine should apply. One test, commonly referred to as the “binding commitment test” applies when there is a commitment to complete a later step in an overall transaction at the time the first step is made. Since an IRA contribution (deductible or not) does not require that one convert the contribution to a Roth IRA, this test is a non-factor here.  

Another test that is used to determine if the step transaction doctrine should be applied is the “mutual interdependence test.” This test looks at each step in an overall series of steps and determines if a specific step is meaningless unless the later step(s) actually occurs. Since a non-deductible IRA contribution is clearly beneficial (read “not meaningless”) on its own, this test is also a non-factor.  

The third and final test, known as the “end result test,” is the most applicable for this discussion. Under the end result test, the steps in a transaction are looked at to see whether the series of steps were really just predetermined steps of a single, overall transaction, aimed at achieving a specific outcome. Do clients make IRA contributions with the idea that they will later convert them? Sure. So is it possible for IRS to raise issues with this strategy in the future? Yes, but it’s not a likely scenario.  

For starters, it’s clear that Congress expressly and intentionally allows taxpayers to make non-deductible IRA contributions. It’s also clear that Congress’ intent is to allow taxpayers with IRAs to convert them to Roth IRAs, regardless of their income. Secondly, how would IRS even apply this rule? How long would someone have to wait to complete step 2 (converting to Roth) after completing step 1 (non-deductible contribution) without IRS applying the step transaction doctrine?  

My general advice to clients who cannot make contributions directly to a Roth IRA (due to high income) is to make the contribution to their IRA first, let it stay there for at least a day or two - so it shows up on at least one traditional IRA statement - and then convert it to a Roth IRA.        

Rollovers and Conversions

Hi Ed and team!  

Client has funds in a company plan. The funds are in a Section 401(a) after tax account inside the company plan. The funds consist of $50,000 of post tax contributions (basis) and $20,000 of earnings from the 401(a) source funds.  

We would like to do a Roth IRA conversion of the full $70,000. This would NOT be an in-plan Roth conversion but a conversion of in-plan funds directly to a Roth IRA allowed under The Small Business Jobs Act of 2010.  

If we convert directly from the company plan to the Roth IRA, the taxable amount on the conversion will only be the $20,000 of earnings from the 401(a) source, as only the 401(a) funds are considered for the conversion.  Is that correct?  

If we do a rollover of the funds to a rollover IRA, and then try to convert that amount to a Roth IRA, then the conversion will have to consider ALL other IRA’s owned by the participant. Is that correct? (The participant already has a $100,000 Rollover IRA with zero basis from previous job) 

I am just trying to be sure that my strategy is appropriate!  


Desmond Quigley 


Your logic is 100% correct. By making a Roth conversion directly from your clients plan to an IRA, the conversion can be made without regard to any money the client has in his IRA. In this case, the $70,000 could be converted with only $20,000 of taxable income. If the money was first rolled to an IRA, your client’s $100,000 existing IRA balance would need to be taken into consideration when calculating the pro-rata rule, resulting in a much lower percentage of the conversion being tax free.  

One quick note however. You mentioned in your question that this direct conversion was made possible by the Small Business Jobs Act of 2010. That law however, created the ability to make in-plan conversions [i.e. 401(k) to Roth 401(k)] only. Direct plan-to-Roth IRA conversions were actually first allowed under the Pension Protection Act of 2006 beginning January 1, 2008.       

Tax Issues With a Gold IRA


Should a client who is sold a Gold IRA by a Gold Broker, who is told by the broker to rollover funds into an IRA, be concerned about the taxable basis of the gold purchased? As you know, it is usually purchased with a steep commission of 12% - 20%. So the client pays full cost and holds gold at 80% - 88% of the cost. I understand that the IRS values the captive IRA Gold at spot. So it changes in value during the holding period. What is the correct basis for the IRA Gold at distribution" 100% of cost or FMV at distribution?" Or are the fees lost "paid", deductible separately from the IRA distribution taxes?  How does this question apply to a ROTH IRA and ROTH IRA Conversion?  

Metals Mike  


Unless a client has after-tax dollars in a traditional IRA, there is no basis. The purchase price of an investment has no bearing on this. Distributions from an IRA, whether made in cash or “in kind” are taxable at ordinary income rates.    

There is generally basis in a Roth IRA, but this basis is derived not from the purchase price of an investment within the Roth IRA, but rather, from Roth IRA contributions and/or Roth IRA conversions. If the requirements for a qualified distribution have been met, all distributions from a Roth IRA (in cash or in kind) are income tax and penalty free.

Named “The Best” source for IRA advice by The Wall Street Journal and called “America’s IRA Expert” by Mutual Funds Magazine, Slott is a widely recognized professional speaker who has trained hundreds of thousands of financial advisors across America. He has collaborated to create the nationally aired Public Television specials, “Lower Your Taxes! Now & Forever with Ed Slott” (2010), “Stay Rich for Life! with Ed Slott” (2009), and “Stay Rich Forever & Ever with Ed Slott” (2008). Slott has also established the IRA Leadership Program and Ed Slott’s Elite IRA Advisor GroupSM, which were developed specifically to help financial advisors and institutions become recognized leaders in the IRA marketplace. Slott is the author of Ed Slott’s Retirement Decisions Guide: 2011 Edition (Ed Slott, 2011), Ed Slott’s Retirement Decisions Guide: 2010 Edition (Ed Slott, 2009), Stay Rich for Life! Growing & Protecting Your Money in Turbulent Times (Ballantine Books, 2009), Parlay Your IRA Into a Family Fortune (Penguin, 2008), Your Complete Retirement Planning Road Map (Ballantine Books, 2007), The Retirement Savings Time Bomb...And How to Defuse It (Penguin, 2007) and Ed Slott’s IRA Advisor, a monthly IRA newsletter. He also writes personal finance columns for numerous financial publications and co-authored an extensive special report with Harry Dent titled, Taxing Away Your Wealth.

Slott is a past Chairman of the New York State Society of CPAs Estate Planning Committee and editor of the IRA Planning section of The CPA Journal. He is a past recipient of the prestigious “Excellence in Estate Planning” and “Outstanding Service” awards presented by The Foundation for Accounting Education. He is a former Board member of The Estate Planning Council of New York City.