Wednesday, February 17, 2010

8 Ways to Rock Your Roth Conversion.

When the calendar passed from December to January, we bid a not so fond adieu to 2009 as well as the rollover income limitation associated with transitioning a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This is a good thing if  converting to a Roth IRA makes sense for you.girl with guitar

The Roth IRA is one of the best retirement and estate planning tools available, and with the recent change in restrictions and tax payment scheduling, 2010 is the year of the Roth. Quite simply, if the Roth makes sense for you then 2010 is likely the year to make it happen.

Here are 8 ways not to screw it up.

1. Just Do it.

As many experts look at the mounting federal deficits and growing number of states in danger of bankrupting themselves, they see no choice but for taxes to skyrocket. Maybe, and maybe not. I'm not going to get on a political riff on the subject of reckless spending and taxes. I just want you to be aware that the chances are slim that tax rates will stay at their current rates, which are historically low.

So, the question for long term investors is not whether to fund a Roth, but how to fund a Roth IRA. Regarding a rollover from a traditional IRA, your choices are essentially:

  1. Convert your IRA all at once.

  2. Convert your IRA in stages, or segments.

Either way, if you don't at least start to convert now, and you wait to do it later it may cost you dearly in terms of taxes. If you've decided that a Roth isn't for you, then... why are you reading this article? Besides, since January 2010, all income limitations have been removed.

2. Understand the tax consequences.

Deciding to wait and do a conversion after taxes rise is a costly mistake, but so is jumping into a conversion without understanding the full tax implications.

For example, if you're in a 15% income tax bracket today and you rollover a $250,000 IRA you will not pay 15% in taxes. You will end up paying quite a bit more because that $250,000 distribution can be counted as income, according to Barry Picker (who recently served as the technical editor of "100+ Roth IRA Examples and Flowcharts," by Robert Keebler) and that will most likely bump you into a higher income tax bracket.

3. Know the direction of your tax bracket.

If you are the sole breadwinner today, but your spouse is likely to re-enter the workforce in a year or two, then you're better off converted at today's lower tax rate. On the other hand, if your spouse is considering staying at home with the baby that's due in a few months, you're better off waiting until she leaves the workforce and your combined income drops. Likewise if you file solo, but you're thinking of tacking a pay cut to switch careers. Time your conversion when your tax rate is likely to be on the low side.

4. Don't pay taxes with money from your transaction.

Paying the taxes with money you have withheld from the rollover transaction is a bad idea for a number of reasons, including:

Every penny you take out of the transaction is less that goes to work for you in the Roth.

The amount withheld goes to the IRS as an advance payment, and also reduces the total conversion amount. Hence, the amount withheld is considered a distribution and not part of the conversion and can impart further tax liabilities. For example, if you have a $100,000 IRA that you convert to a Roth IRA and withhold $20,000 (20%) for taxes, then the $20,000 is treated as a distribution and may be taxable in itself.

If you need to reverse the conversion (called a re-characterization - more on that below), then you can only reverse the amount actually converted. In the example above, you could reverse the $80,000 conversion, but you'd be out that $20,000 permanently - and you would still owe taxes on the $20,000.

The amount withheld for taxes is also subject to the 10% early distribution penalty, unless you are 59 1/2 when the conversion occurred.

5. Be a good judge of re-characterization.

If not converting is a mistake, not paying attention to your Roth after you've converted is a huge mistake. Here's why - and incidentally, here's one of the greatest aspects of the Roth IRA conversion. It's called "re-characterization" and here's how it works.

Re-characterization allows you to undo a conversion if the market value falls below your conversion amount. It's the mulligan of the Roth world. Here's an example:

You have $100,000 in your traditional IRA when you convert it to a Roth IRA. After a while, the your Roth is worth only $50,000. If you left your Roth alone, you'd owe taxes on the full amount at the time of conversion - $100,000. But, if you re-characterize your Roth (i.e. undo the conversion, you get your $100,000 back in a traditional IRA and you would owe taxes on the $50,000 re-characterization amount.

Of course, you have to do it before the next tax filing deadline after your initial conversion and if there are fees involved, you might want to makes sure you've lost enough value to make it worth your trouble.

6. Divide and conquer.

Besides the income limitations being dropped, you also get an extension on when you have to pay the taxes if you convert in 2010. For this one year only, you can spread your payment of the taxes you owe on the amount converted over the 2011 and 2012 tax periods; meaning you don't have to actually pay them until 2012 and 2013!

7. Catch the early bird special.

If you convert early in 2010 and the market resumes its bull run, as some analysts think may happen, then you would have more time to catch those tax-free gains, while splitting the payment of the taxes owed over two year's.

8. Hedge your bets.

You can split your conversions up into multiple conversions, by asset class for example. That way if your stocks perform well, but your bonds tank, you can re-characterize your bond conversion back into a traditional IRA and lessen the tax hit. In fact, many experts recommend slicing your IRA up into as many Roth IRA accounts as possible to gain maximum control over your taxes. This is probably only beneficial for very large accounts however.


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