July 30, 2014 in Investing

There is no denying the benefits of converting money from a traditional IRA to a Roth retirement account.

Not only do the earnings in a Roth grow tax-free, but there’s no minimum distribution age attached, allowing your money to work longer and harder during retirement.

Distributions from a traditional IRA, meanwhile, must begin by age 70 1/2.

Another Roth advantage is that you can take early withdrawals penalty-free (as long as the account has been open at least five years) for any reason — as long as you limit your withdrawals to the initial principal.

Income earned from investments can also be withdrawn to cover qualified expenses, including the purchase of a first-time home, higher education or for medical insurance premiums during times of unemployment.

By contrast, distributions from a traditional IRA before age 59 1/2 will generally cost you a 10 percent penalty.

Who might benefit from a conversion?

  • Young workers who are in a lower tax bracket.
  • High-income earners ineligible to contribute directly to a Roth.
  • Individuals near age 70 1/2 who won’t need the money within five years.
  • People who plan to pass on their IRA through an estate.

New rules under the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 mean there are no income limits on Roth conversions.

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The removal of the earnings limit applies to conversions only.

The existing income ceilings remain in effect for new accounts and for contributions to an existing Roth IRA.

In 2014, single filers and heads of households can contribute the maximum if their income is below $114,000. After that, the contribution amount is phased out and tops out at incomes above $129,000. For married filing jointly, the phaseouts begin at $181,000 and top out at $191,000.

Who should think twice about converting?

  • IRA holders who cannot pay the tax bill with nonretirement savings.
  • People who may move into a higher tax bracket if they convert.
  • Older individuals who will need the money within five years.

Can you afford it?

Regardless of eligibility, however, a Roth conversion may not be right for you.

The process can be costly and complicated.

When you move money from a traditional IRA to a Roth, for example, you are required to pay income tax on the converted amount, which can be substantial.

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Those who lack the personal savings to cover the tab often use money from their traditional IRA, which is ill-advised.

“It is preferable for an account holder to use non-IRA funds to pay the conversion taxes,” says Nick Kaster, senior analyst at Wolters Kluwer. “First, by paying the tax on the conversion out of other assets, the full amount of the IRA is allowed to grow tax-deferred. In addition, because funds are not being drawn from the IRA, they will not be subject to the 10 percent penalty on distributions received prior to age 59 1/2.”

The other potential drawback to a Roth conversion is that it could push you into a higher tax bracket, especially if you’ve accumulated sizable earnings over the years. (Only the portion of your income that falls into that new bracket will be taxed at the higher rate.)

To minimize the upfront tax hit of a conversion and avoid the higher tax rate, some financial planners suggest moving a portion of your traditional IRA to a Roth over the course of several years.

Kaster, however, notes retirement savers must first consider their income, tax rate and age.

“Individuals and their planners need to run the numbers to determine if a total or partial conversion works for them,” he says.

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You may need help anyway determining how much of your converted savings are taxable, particularly if you have deductible and nondeductible money in your IRA.

For those willing to go it alone, the IRS provides a work sheet to help calculate the taxable part of an IRA in Publication 590.

Will it pay?

Generally, converting to a Roth IRA makes sense for those who expect their federal tax rate to remain the same or go up after retirement, since their earnings would not be subject to tax upon withdrawal.

Younger employees are also more likely to benefit because they have a longer time horizon to make up for the immediate tax hit and more years to benefit from compounded growth.

Older individuals, however, who are financially well-positioned and approaching age 70 1/2, when required minimum distributions begin for their regular IRA, may also do well by converting part of their savings to a Roth.

Such a strategy helps lower the value of their regular IRA and as a result, reduces their required minimum distributions. In addition, access to tax-free money affords retirees flexibility when it comes to taking retirement plan distributions.

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It also, of course, gives their earnings a chance to grow tax-free for as long as they like.

Finally, those focused on estate planning are good candidates for a Roth conversion as well, says Kaster.

“If the IRA owner’s main priority is to provide for heirs at death, then conversion to a Roth makes sense,” he says. “Because no minimum distributions are required from a Roth (unlike with a traditional IRA), a Roth is superior to a traditional IRA as a vehicle to pass on wealth, since the assets can sit in the account and accumulate.”

Need money soon?

If you think you might need to withdraw from your Roth within five years of your conversion, however, you should plan to leave your money in a traditional IRA.

Distributions of earnings made from a Roth that is less than 5 years old are subject to the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.

Consult your tax adviser to determine whether a Roth rollover is right for you.

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