When Should You Convert to a Roth IRA?

Given the historic opportunity of 2010 to spread the tax payment over 2 years in 2011 and 2012, everyone with a traditional IRA should take at least one look at Roth IRA conversion for next year.

It is most beneficial to you when all of these apply:

  • You’ll pay the resulting “conversion” tax with non-IRA funds
  • You have 10 years or more before you will be taking distributions from the Roth IRA
  • You will be in the same or a higher tax bracket when you start taking those distributions.

But even if only some or none of these apply, it doesn’t mean you should rule conversion out.

There are still many times where it can make sense, and some that don’t.  It’s easiest to discuss these by looking at few examples.

I did an analysis for a 64-year-old who didn’t have the money to pay the tax with non-IRA funds, so the taxes were going to come out of his IRA.  He also only had 6 years until he planned to start taking distributions.  He was going to be in the same tax bracket in 2011-2012 and in retirement.  In his situation, he still came out ahead with conversion – having over $1,000 more in after-tax retirement income by converting. He won’t be subject to the 10% penalty on the amount withdrawn to pay the tax because he is over 59 ½.  His situation was also helped by not planning to take social security until age 70.  If he was already receiving social security benefits, we would have needed to consider any additional income tax implications on his social security benefits for the years he claimed the conversion income.

Another analysis was for a 32-year-old woman.  She has a pre-tax employer 401k and was also trying to decide if conversion made sense.  She also does not have the funds to pay the taxes with non-401k money, and she would be subject to the 10% penalty by withdrawing funds from the 401k before age 59 ½ to pay the taxes.  We estimated her tax bracket in 2011-2012 and in retirement as the same.  In her case, conversion did not make sense.  But it was quite close. If she believed that her tax rates were going to be higher by the time she retired by even 1%, the conversion would have significantly increased her after-tax income.

One last example – 44 year old.  He had a traditional IRA and had money to pay the taxes from a non-IRA account.  However, we estimated that his tax bracket in retirement would likely be lower than it is now, by about 3%.  In his case, conversion was still a great deal even with the projected lower retirement tax rate. Having all those years of after-tax growth more than off-set the potential for a slightly lower rate in retirement.

If you have a traditional IRA, an analysis is in order.

The above examples illustrate that even when your situation doesn’t meet the “ideal conversion” criteria, it still may make a significant difference in your after-tax retirement income.  If you’d like to see the specific calculations on any of the examples listed above, please feel free to contact me and I’d be happy to send them to you.

A few other considerations to keep in mind

If your estate is potentially subject to the estate tax, a Roth conversion can be a powerful planning tool.

The market’s relative “high” or “low” value when you convert is also a factor in how good a deal conversion is – low values mean you pay tax on a lower amount.

There are also opportunities to convert in early 2010 and undo the conversion later based on circumstances or market performance.  We’ll discuss this in future posts.

About the author

Jean Keener, CRPC®, CFDP®

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