If you don't have retirement savings in Roth IRAs, it's time you considered the benefit of these tax-savings accounts. The long-term tax savings opportunities are driving more Americans to roll over various retirement funds into Roth accounts.
These so called "Roth conversions" can be performed on traditional IRAs. In addition, beginning in 2008, it will be easier to roll money from an employer plan into a Roth IRA.
But first, you may be wondering what's so great about Roth IRAs. Roth IRA contributions are always made with after-tax dollars. That's right; you won't get a tax deduction for contributing. However, the principle grows tax-free and the account holder may make tax-free withdrawals at 59 1/2. Furthermore, there are no required minimum distributions for a Roth, which makes them ideal for funding the latter years of retirement.
Conversely, a traditional IRA allows before-tax contributions to grow tax-deferred, but not tax-free. So, although you can usually deduct your contribution to a traditional IRA, you pay ordinary income tax on the withdrawals. Furthermore, the IRS will require you to take minimum distributions, whether you need the money or not. However, Roth IRAs may not provide tax savings for everyone. Remember, contributions to Roths are made with after-tax dollars whereas traditional IRAs are made with pre-tax dollars.
Roth IRAs provide tax savings for individuals who expect to be in a higher tax bracket later in life. The tax benefits of a Roth are created by the tax disparity between your tax bracket when you put your money in versus your tax bracket in retirement. The lower your tax rate and the longer you have until retirement, the more likely a Roth conversion will play in your favor.
Imagine John, age 60, owns two traditional IRA accounts. Each is funded with $5,000. Let's assume he keeps the $5,000 in one IRA. But with the other, he uses some of the funds to pay the taxes due and then converts it to a Roth. Assuming John remains in the same tax bracket and the accounts deliver the same return on investment, each account will generate the same spending money in retirement, after taxes are paid on the traditional IRA. If John drops into a lower tax bracket after his retirement, the traditional IRA would have been the better bet. But if John's taxes rise, the Roth IRA proves to be the better option.
Guessing your future tax rates is nearly impossible. Traditionally, it was thought your tax rate in retirement would be less than when you were working, but this is increasingly not the case. Tax rates are not adjusted for inflation, so many retired couples continue to creep into higher tax brackets. Also, tax rates are at a historic low and likely to rise if the political winds change.
If you expect to see your tax bracket increase significantly — from say, 15 percent to 25 percent — you will likely benefit from a Roth conversion. This is true for younger workers and also for new retirees. In the early retirement years, many couples dip into a lower tax bracket just after retirement but before Social Security checks start arriving.
Before you rush off to begin your Roth conversions, be sure you have enough money to cover the tax bill. During a conversion, you'll withdraw funds from your traditional IRA, report the funds as income, and roll them over to a Roth IRA account. The tax implications from the conversion will vary based on whether you took a deduction on the principal. If you deducted your IRA contributions, you'll have to pay taxes on both the principal and the earnings. If you didn't, you'll just pay taxes on the earnings. I say 'just,' but either way, this could be a big bill.
The good news is you can withdraw funds from your traditional IRA and convert them to a Roth without incurring the 10% early withdrawal penalty.
You'll also have to pass an income test. Until 2010, income limits do apply. Only joint and single filers with a modified adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less can qualify. After 2010, the income restrictions on converting funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA will disappear completely.
Traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs and SARSEP IRAs are subject to the same conversion rules. Until 2010, you'll have to pass the income test to qualify.
SIMPLE IRAs can also be converted to Roth IRAs, if you participated in the plan for more than two years. SIMPLE IRA account holders are not subject to this rule if they are over 59 1/2. The income test of $100,000 or less (no requirement after beginning in 2010) still applies.
Keep in mind there are more ways than one way to get funds into a Roth IRA. Although conversions from a traditional IRA to a Roth are common, funds in employer sponsored plans — like 401k, 403b and 457 plans — can also be rolled over to a Roth.
In 2007, rollovers from an employer plan can not go straight to a Roth IRA. Instead, you'll first have to rollover funds into a traditional IRA. Once in the IRA you can immediately do a Roth conversion. But thanks to the Pension Protection Act of 2006, it will soon be easier to convert your retirement savings to a Roth IRA. Beginning in 2008, funds from your employer sponsored plan can be directly rolled over into a Roth IRA.
However, don't Roth conversions with the other Roth plans sponsored by your employer. Currently, you cannot convert a traditional 401k or 403b to its employer-sponsored Roth counterpart such as a Roth 401k, Roth 403b.
Remember, no matter when you do your conversion, it must be done before Dec. 31 of the tax year. Later, if you find you weren't eligible for the Roth conversion, you can undo the damage with a Roth re-characterization before your file your taxes.
Marotta Asset Management, Inc. of Charlottesville provides fee-only financial planning and asset management. Visit www.emarotta.com for more information. Questions to be answered in the column should be sent to email@example.com or Marotta Asset Management, Inc., One Village Green Circle, Suite 100, Charlottesville, VA 22903-4619.
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