Roth: to convert or not to convert. Converting to a Roth IRA might be worth consideration if you have been saving for retirement in a traditional IRA (TIRA)
As you may know, when it’s time to take the money out of your TIRA, you will owe tax on the amount you withdraw (called a “distribution”). So when you think of the balance in your TIRAs, give that number a haircut of 10% – 40% (using current tax rates) that will be sent to Uncle Sam.
Further, when you reach age 73 or 75 (depending on your birth year) whether you need money or not, you will be required to take an IRS-calculated required minimum distribution (RMD). The RMD income can push you into the next tax bracket or, more commonly, into a higher bracket for Medicare premium surcharges. Surcharges mean you could pay up to several hundred dollars more per month for Medicare.
Finally, if you are married and leave TIRAs to your spouse, he or she must eventually take RMDs. When they start filing as single the year after you die, there is a greater likelihood the RMD will push them into the higher income tax or Medicare surcharge brackets.
Review of Roth Advantages
Roth’s have several advantages over traditional retirement accounts (TRAs).
1) When you think of the balance in a Roth IRA, there is no tax haircut. Money in a Roth grows tax-free forever. That’s a bigger balance to spend on world cruises, grandchildren, or a Winnebago.
2) Your heirs will have to withdraw the Roth money if you don’t, but they won’t owe tax then, either.
3) Roths have no RMDs. So that might save you from Medicare surcharges and other additional taxes such as the Net Investment Income tax (NIIT).
4) If you are married and die before your spouse, your spouse will not have to take RMDs from them.
5) If you have a trust, it may be much more beneficial to leave a Roth to the trust than a TIRA. Ask your CPA or tax attorney about this one.
What’s the Catch with Roths?
What’s the catch? The amount of TIRA that you convert to a Roth gets taxed in the year you make the conversion. If you convert $100,000 this year, that’s $100,000 added to your income.
So if you are still working, and you convert some or all of your retirement money to a Roth, you will be paying tax on the converted amount at today’s tax rates, hoping/betting that the growth in the Roth will make the extra tax bite today worthwhile later.
For the hope/bet to have the best chance to work, a few things help:
– You expect to be in a the same or higher tax bracket after you quit working. Otherwise you could wait and pay less tax on the conversion at a lower tax bracket later.
– You don’t expect to need the money in the Roth for many years. To reap the biggest benefit, the Roth needs time to grow.
– You are ok taking more risk with money in the Roth. Since more risk means greater return over the long haul, more risk in the Roth helps to juice the tax-free growth for which you are aiming. Having Roth money sit in CDs or money markets isn’t going to reap the big benefits.
– You can pay the Roth conversion tax bill out of non-retirement money. Otherwise you might have to take an even larger distribution, which then creates higher income and even higher tax.
Have a Strategy
Because of the tax hit from a Roth conversion, one popular strategy is to wait to convert until you quit working, or otherwise experience a big drop in income, and take advantage of the lower-income year(s). The amount to convert is then carefully calculated each year to keep you out of higher tax brackets for both income taxes and Medicare.
This strategy works especially well if you are younger than 70, delay taking Social Security, and live off of already-taxed savings or investments. You may have a couple to several years where small incremental amounts are used to fill up a relatively low bracket. Over that time it’s possible to build up a nice-sized conversion amount in a Roth.
When NOT to Convert
Converting to a Roth may not be the best strategy if any of the following are true for you:
· You have kids in or going to college over the next 2 to 6 years. The increased income from the conversion (beginning from 2 years prior to enrollment) will possibly increase the amount on the FAFSA (Federal student aid application) you would be expected to contribute toward tuition.
· You plan on donating most or all of your RMDs to charity. You can do this tax-free anyway by making a Qualified Charitable Distribution (QCD) from IRAs (but not employer retirement plans) beginning at age 70 1/2. You can also count your QCD towards your RMD after age 72. No sense paying tax on the conversion when you’re going to do QCDs.
· You expect to have high medical and/or long-term care expenses. These will offset the tax on your TRA distributions too. Like QCDs, there’s no sense paying tax on the conversion if you will have high deductions to offset future distributions.
Getting help to convert to a Roth is usually a good idea. The easiest system is to have a Roth at the same firm where you have a TRA. Usually you can make the conversion by doing a simple transfer between the two accounts. Find out how the firm will report the distribution and conversion on your tax records. When you have more than one firm involved, get detailed information from each firm about how to make the transfer show up on their tax records properly.
The next step is to pay the tax on the conversion. Firms may ask about withholding for taxes – this can get tricky to calculate, but in general, as mentioned above, you would want “0” withheld and then submit an estimated amount from your non-retirement funds as soon as possible.
Due to the large tax consequences typically involved with Roth conversions, it’s best to consult with a CPA, tax attorney, and/or CFP™ for more detailed advice. In some cases, the future savings and flexibility a Roth affords may be well worth some extra effort and expense today.
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