After all the hoopla around Roth conversions in 2010, now is the time to consider whether or not a recharacterization is in your future. So what is a recharacterization, and how does it work?
Recharacterization is the “backing out” of your Roth conversion. In other words, you can literally make the conversion as if it had never been done at all, with your money back in the traditional IRA where it started.[See Jim’s tips on Paying Taxes on a Roth IRA Conversion]
Why would you want to do that? Here’s an example: let’s say you converted $100,000 to a Roth IRA in 2010 and you are ready to pay the tax on your 2010 return (you elected out of the spread to 2011 and 2012). Except that now, your investment in the Roth IRA has dropped in value to only $50,000 – and you still owe tax on the conversion of $100,000! Yikes – that’s just totally wrong!
Recharacterization can help to save you in this situation. As long as you act before the due date of your return (including extensions), you can put recharacterization to work for you, moving the $50,000 back to the traditional IRA. It will be as if nothing was done at all, and no taxes are owed.
Actually, as far as the IRS is concerned you are not moving $50,000 back, you’re moving the original $100,000 and the gains or losses on that original $100,000, which happens to equal $50,000.
One way to use this to your advantage is to split your Roth conversions up into separate accounts by specific types of assets, so that if one of the asset types (or more) happens to drop significantly in value, you can recharacterize the conversion on only that account, leaving the other account(s) intact.
This would help with your record-keeping, since any amount that you recharacterize from a Roth to a traditional IRA must include the gains or losses that are attributable to the recharacterized amount. Of course, you wouldn’t likely recharacterize unless you had net losses in the Roth account – although you might find that recharacterization is a good option if you came up short of cash to pay the tax on the original conversion.