Although they're called Individual Retirement Accounts, IRAs don't necessarily have anything to do with retirement. You can withdraw money from an IRA while you're still working, and you can keep contributing to an IRA in retirement. Your ability to contribute depends on you age and whether you're still earning income in a retirement career.
You can contribute to an IRA up until the year you hit 70 1/2 years of age. At that point, you can't contribute anything; instead, you're required to make mandatory annual minimum withdrawals. If you have a Roth IRA, however—in which you pay income tax on contributions but not on withdrawals—you can continue making contributions as long as you live. There are no minimum withdrawals required from a Roth IRA.
You can only contribute to a Roth or traditional IRA in a year when you've earned what the IRS considers "compensation." Compensation includes wages, salaries, commissions, bonuses, tips, self-employment income and nontaxable combat pay. It does not include gifts, Social Security and pensions, rental income or interest. If you live on Social Security alone, you can't contribute to an IRA. You also can't contribute more than your compensation: If you earned only $300 dollars, $300 is the most you can contribute.
The government sets other limits on how much you can contribute to an IRA. For account holders older than 50, the maximum in 2011, for example, is $6,000, unless your compensation for the year is less. You can, however, contribute to your spouse's account; if he made no compensation at all and you had $12,000 or more in compensation, you could contribute $6,000 to both accounts.
Even though you can't contribute to an IRA after 59 1/2, or when you have no compensation, you can still upgrade your investments, for instance by directing the IRA manager to buy stock with account funds. You can roll over funds from one IRA to another IRA or a Roth even after you hit 70 1/2. You'll have to pay tax on the money, but if you put it in a Roth and don't make withdrawals, you can pass it to your heirs intact.