Time for Roth Conversion

March 09, 2012
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There May Never Be a Better Time for a Roth Conversion
by Cathy Pareto, MBA, CFP®, – September 2009

Roth IRA’s have long offered investors a great opportunity to grow their wealth in a tax free environment. But, because Roth IRA contributions are subject to strict income limitations, not everyone gets to benefit from its features. Investors with traditional IRA’s have also historically been constrained to income limits when converting their IRA into a Roth. The good news is, as of January 2010, there will no longer be income limitations on eligibility for converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Should you consider this, and if so why?

Background

As a refresher, traditional IRAs are funded with pre-tax dollars and defer taxes on investment gains until the day you withdraw the funds. When funds are withdrawn from the traditional IRA, they are taxed as ordinary income (your highest tax bracket). Conversely, Roth IRAs, are funded with post-tax dollars but all of the investment earnings grow tax free and avoid taxes when they are withdrawn (assuming it’s a qualified distribution). Roth IRAs can’t be opened by taxpayers making more than $176,000 (joint returns) and $120,000 for single taxpayers. Furthermore, conversions of traditional retirement funds into Roth IRAs have not been permitted for households with annual incomes above $100,000.

The Conversion Process

A Roth Conversion is a distribution of assets out of a tax-deferred IRA, such as a Traditional or Rollover IRA, which is transferred into a Roth IRA. If the converted assets are held in the Roth for the five-year holding period, qualified withdrawals are tax-free. The conversion from the traditional IRA into the Roth IRA is considered a taxable event, and the account holder will generally owe taxes on the distribution in the current year. However, in 2010 only, IRA account holders have the option of applying 50% of the conversion amount to the 2011 tax year and 50% to the 2012 tax year, or applying 100% of the conversion amount to the 2010 tax year. Steep investment losses in many retirement accounts may make that tax hit easier to take, and will guarantee that any market rebound in investment values will never be taxed if funds are switched into a Roth account. Finally, conversions must be fully completed by December 31st to qualify for current year tax treatment.

Why Bother?

So, what makes a Roth IRA so great? If you believe that your tax rates will be higher in retirement than they are now, Roth IRA’s can save you loads of future taxes—that can translate into greater wealth for you. Let’s use the following example. You are age 40 and have a $200,000 traditional IRA. Your plan is to retire at 65. Your current tax bracket is 25% and you anticipate that you will be in (at least) a 30% tax bracket upon retirement. We suppose that the tax due upon the Roth conversion is $50,000, is paid with funds available outside of the IRA being converted. Let us also assume an investment tax rate of 15% capital gains rate now and in the future. Using an 8% expected return on your investments, the after tax net return from your Traditional IRA (with tax savings) would be worth $1,186,411, while the after tax net return from your Roth IRA would be $1,369,695. That’s a difference of $183,284 by converting to the Roth.

Other Considerations

It is always wise to check with your tax or financial advisor before making a conversion. This is particularly true because executing a conversion may actually bump you into a higher tax bracket. Because converted assets will be considered taxable income, perhaps a partial conversion may be the answer. Converting only a portion of the assets may allow you to stay in a lower tax bracket, allowing you the flexibility to convert additional assets in future years. Ideally, individuals considering a Roth conversion should have the cash on hand to pay the income tax on converted assets. A partial conversion could help limit the conversion taxes to an amount your client can pay without dipping into IRA assets.

Does a Conversion Make Sense for You?

Clearly, everyone’s circumstances are unique and there is no one-size-fits-all answer here. After all, the decision to convert to a Roth can be influenced by a number of factors including:

  • Your age and longevity
  • Your income tax bracket now and in the future
  • Your expected rate of return
  • Your investment tax rate (ie. capital gains rate)

The decision to convert can be complicated. If you want to learn more, Morningstar, has written an informative overview of the conversion decision, and also provides a useful conversion calculator to help determine if conversion makes sense. For many, there is no better moment to consider this. The time is right for a Roth conversion.