Be Careful When Converting

When converting from a 401(k), traditional IRA, 403(b), SIMPLE IRA, SEP or 457(b) to a Roth IRA there are some important tax considerations to keep in mind.

First, converting from a tax deferred plan to a tax free plan it’s not always the best idea. Generally, it’s going to make sense to convert if the tax payer believes that he or she will be in a higher income tax bracket in retirement. For example, John, age 28 has a 401(k) and recently left his employer. He’s currently in the 15% bracket but expects to be in the 28% bracket or higher in retirement. It may make sense for John to convert his 401(k) to his Roth IRA.

This makes sense for John because when he converts from a pre-tax, employer sponsored plan like the 401(k) it’s money that has not yet been taxed. If he converts while in the 15% bracket, that money is now subject to tax at the 15% rate, and arguably a lower amount of money being taxed since he’s still young. If he decided to wait until retirement to convert (let’s assume he’s in the 28% bracket) then that money is going to be taxed at 28%, or almost twice the rate if he had converted when he was in the 15% bracket. John has also eliminated future RMDs as Roth IRAs have no such requirement.

Generally, it may make sense to not convert if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket at retirement. The reason is you’d convert at a higher tax bracket today, only to be in a lower bracket in retirement. Thus, you’ve paid a higher than necessary amount of tax on your money.

Second, when converting, pay close attention to you your age and how you choose to “pay” the tax. Let’s look at two examples.

Let’s say John in the example above decides to convert when he leaves his employer at age 28. He’s saved a nice sum of $100,000 in his 401(k). He decides to convert to a Roth IRA at the 15% bracket. He elects to pay the tax himself from outside of the 401(k), that is, he elects to not have any tax withheld from the conversion. He decides he’ll pay the tax from another source when tax time comes around. All is being equal, John owes $15,000 at tax time.

This turns out to be a very wise decision for John. Here’s why.

Let’s assume the same scenario above except that John decides to have the $15,000 withheld from his 401(k) to pay the taxes on the conversion. Remember how old John was? 28. He’s under age 59 1/2 and the $15,000 withheld for taxes is considered an early distribution, and, you guessed it, subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty. So instead of paying $15,000 in taxes, John pays an additional $1,500 due to the 10% penalty or a total of $16,500.

It pays (either you or the IRS) to consider the tax ramifications of converting to a Roth IRA. Talk to an experienced financial planner and or tax advisor for help.

About the author

Jim Blankenship, CFP®, EA

Jim Blankenship is the founder and principal of Blankenship Financial Planning, Ltd., a financial planning firm providing hourly, as-needed financial planning and advice. A financial services professional for over 25 years, Jim is a CFP professional and has earned the Enrolled Agent designation, a designation that qualifies him as enrolled to practice before the IRS. Jim is also a NAPFA-registered financial advisor, which designates him as a Fee-Only Financial Advisor.

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  • Yes, if you weren’t vested, at the time you left, you’re still not vested 9 years later.

    The vesting requirement should only apply to the matching funds or any other contributions that the employer made on your behalf – your own contributions and the growth associated with them should be yours.

  • Hi Jim,
    I left an ex employer in 2007 but my 401K money was left in their plan. Thru the years they changed administrators (two administrators) and i was getting the statements showing full amount (X). This year they changed again administrator, I decided to call and move the money into my present employer plan. I was told that only 40% of that money was mine since wasn’t vested 100%. This is the 1st time i’m hearing this and all account statement till last march from old administrator show the full amount. Is this right? Can they claim this after 9 years? Thank You!

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