Since its introduction in 1998, the Roth IRA has been a popular alternative to a traditional IRA. Here’s why:
Yes. Under current law, anyone can convert an existing IRA to a Roth IRA, regardless of income levels. When you convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, you are choosing to pay tax today on the amount you convert. This is important. You are accelerating the payment of taxes, telling the IRS, “Tax me today instead of in the future.” This is why converting to a Roth is a big decision. Of course you would only convert if you thought you would pay less tax today (a lower rate of tax) than you would pay if you did not do the conversion and instead paid the tax at some point in the future when you withdraw money from your traditional IRA.
When you convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, the amount you convert goes into a Roth IRA where it will enjoy tax free growth and, importantly, you will enjoy tax free withdrawals at a later date in the future. So when you choose a Roth Conversion, you are accelerating the payment of taxes in exchange for being able to put your IRA funds into an environment where they will never be taxed again.
Retired clients of Bragg know that we think it is desirable to be able to manipulate your taxable income in retirement (legally of course!). Retirement cash flow is not the same thing as taxable income. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a lot of retirement cash flow but very little taxable income? Retirement cash flow drawn from a pre-tax IRA is 100% taxable as ordinary income. Retirement cash flow drawn from your joint account or other non-IRA may be lightly taxed (perhaps a little capital gain and some dividends). Retirement cash flow drawn from a Roth IRA is 100% tax-free. Because the future tax environment is uncertain, we think it makes sense to have the choice to draw from different “pots” of money and therefore be able to control or manipulate your taxable income. Obviously it would be great if our retirement cash flow was completely tax-free but because most folks have large pre-tax IRAs, that is often difficult to achieve. We can however take incremental steps toward having diversified sources of income by exploring the Roth conversion.
When considering the Roth, we think it makes sense to take a measured approach. Congress can always change the law, modifying or eliminating some of the benefits already discussed in this article. We think it makes sense to be in a position to fare well, regardless of current law. Just as a diversified portfolio is prudent, having diversified sources of retirement income makes sense as well.
As a rule of thumb, a Roth IRA conversion makes sense if you:
At Bragg, we think the most important of these is item number 2 above. If you are contemplating a conversion, it is important that you are fairly confident that you will pay a lower rate of tax on the amount you convert than you would pay if you did not convert and simply drew the money and paid taxes at some date in the future. If you are not confident that this is the case, we would be cautious about rushing into a Roth conversion. We suggest reading this paragraph several times.
If you change your mind or your circumstances change, you can re-characterize your Roth IRA conversion back to a traditional IRA for any reason until Oct. 15 of the year following the conversion year and have no tax consequences. This gives you flexibility in the event the value of your investment declines after you convert or if your situation changes to the point where the Roth conversion no longer makes sense. Please note that there are specific tax filing rules to follow if you wish to re-characterize your conversion.
Because a Roth IRA conversion involves moving assets from a pre-tax IRA or qualified plan to a Roth IRA, the amount converted is subject to ordinary income tax.
If you qualify, YES! This is an option; however, one thing that isn’t changing for the Roth IRA is the income limitation for people who make direct contributions. The income threshold for 2015 is $131,000 (phase out begins at $116,000) for single filers and $193,000 (phase out begins at $183,000) for married couples filing jointly. For individuals who are not eligible to make a Roth IRA contribution or deductible IRA contribution, funding a non-deductible traditional IRA and then converting to a Roth IRA that same year (or later) may be a good strategy. There are special tax rules associated with after-tax IRAs, so be sure to check with your tax advisor before utilizing this strategy.
Making non-deductible or after-tax contributions to an IRA is a back door route to funding the Roth IRA. Because anyone can now convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, you can simply convert your non-deductible IRA to a Roth IRA. It seems silly but it works. Do this each year you are eligible. Please note that this strategy is less attractive for folks who already have a large pre-tax traditional IRA. You are not able to convert the after-tax portion alone. Instead the converted amount is based on the overall IRA balance and the taxable portion is the pro rata share of the overall balance.
Your employer may offer a Roth 401k in addition to the traditional pre-tax 401k. If so, you can choose to contribute to either plan or to both plans but your combined contribution for 2015 can not exceed $18,000 ($24,000 if you are over age 50). Whether to contribute to the pre-tax 401k or to the Roth 401k really depends on your specific tax circumstances. You might choose the Roth 401k over the pre-tax 401k if you think that you will be in a higher tax bracket when you draw the funds out than you are in today. This may be the case for a lot of young folks just starting out with relatively low salaries. You might choose to do the Roth 401k because you already have a lot of pre-tax money and you wish to diversify your future sources of retirement cash flow. See “What’s so great about diversified sources of retirement cash flow?” in the above section.
And finally, another indirect but very interesting way to accumulate Roth dollars is to fund the “after-tax” account offered within the retirement plan where you work. In September of 2014, the IRS announced that upon separation from service, participants could use a “split rollover,” rolling the contribution portion of their “after-tax” account to a Roth IRA while rolling the earnings portion of their “after-tax” account to a Traditional IRA. We suggest that you check with your human resources department to learn if “after-tax” contributions are allowed.
We hope this has been helpful. Please let us know if you would like to discuss any of these concepts or strategies.
This information is believed to be accurate but should not be used as specific investment or tax advice. You should always consult your tax professional or other advisors before acting on the ideas presented here.