A Roth conversion is done by converting or rolling over an existing Traditional IRA and/or tax qualified plan (like a 401(k), 403(b) or 457) into a Roth IRA.1
The income tax free withdrawals that Roth accounts offer make them an attractive investment option. However, the tax implications of a Roth conversion may be significant.
The primary advantage of a Roth IRA is that the asset growth, dividends and interest aren’t taxable while assets are held in the plan. In addition, when you withdraw assets from the Roth IRA, the distributions are income tax free under certain conditions.
Roth conversions can offer these other advantages:
1. Roth conversions are taxable
The pretax amount you convert is included in your gross income in the year of the conversion. For tax purposes, the IRS treats all IRAs as a single IRA, even when the IRA consists of deductible and nondeductible contributions. Therefore, there is no advantage in converting the IRA with the greatest nondeductible contributions. The reverse is true however, with 401(k) or 403(b) plans. These plans are not aggregated, so it is possible to convert the plan that holds the most after-tax contributions.
2. Paying taxes on the conversion
The IRS treats a conversion from a Traditional plan to a Roth plan as a distribution. That means that the conversion amount is included in your gross income and is taxable — just like an actual distribution of the same amount from your Traditional plan would be taxable. You’ll pay tax on the converted amount at your applicable tax rate.
3. Income tax rates
If you expect to be in a lower income tax bracket in the future, it might be more beneficial to keep your assets in the Traditional plan for now. But if you expect to be in a higher income tax bracket in the future, there may be a greater benefit to converting.
4. Investment performance
Pay attention to the financial markets. You don’t want to pay federal and state tax now on the conversion of a Traditional plan only to see the converted account’s value decrease later.
5. Beneficiary considerations
If your individual beneficiary (or a trust you established for the beneficiary) is in a higher income tax bracket than you, a conversion might make sense. Especially if you don’t need to draw from the plan during your life and can pay the income tax liability from other assets. Also, if you wish to leave a plan to a noncitizen spouse or to a trust for a special needs child, a conversion might be a good strategy because it removes income tax considerations from the equation.
6. Distribution rules
If you might need access to the converted funds in the short term, make sure you know the rules governing Roth distributions. To make a qualified distribution, you need to meet the following requirements:
It’s important that you work with a qualified attorney or tax advisor to develop a fundamental understanding of the Roth conversion strategy and how it may apply to your specific circumstances.
1 Distributions from tax-qualified retirement plans — including 401(k) plans, tax-sheltered annuities (section 403(b) plans), and governmental 457 plans — are candidates for conversion. You can also convert a Simple IRA, but only after you participate in the Simple IRA plan for at least two years.
2 Roth 401(k)/403(b) plans are subject to the same lifetime minimum distribution rules as their Traditional counterparts.
3 Distributions from a Roth IRA cannot be used to fulfill a minimum distribution requirement arising from a Traditional retirement plan account.
4 If you do a Roth conversion and decide you are unhappy about it, or if you discover that you were not eligible to convert, you can “recharacterize” the conversion. This recharacterization must be made on a “trustee-to-trustee” basis instead of by rollover, the original contribution and net income must be transferred back, and irrevocable notice must be given to the plan trustee. Please note that you cannot recharacterize an “in-plan” conversion (a conversion of non-Roth funds to Roth funds within the same qualified plan). If you do recharacterize, you generally cannot do a reconversion until the latter of: 1) the taxable year following the taxable year of the original conversion, or 2) 30 days after the switch back.
5 Since you already paid the appropriate tax on the original conversion amount for the calendar year in which you converted the asset, the tax and penalty amount is generally imposed upon the earnings rather than upon the original conversion amount.
6 There is an exception for a disability, your death, or if you qualify as a first-time home buyer.
The tax information herein is not intended to be used and cannot be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties. Taxpayers should seek advice based on their own particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.
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