Asad Gourani, CFP®
Roth Conversions: Here's what you need to know
Updated: Jan 18, 2021
A Roth conversion sounds like a highly technical and formidable thing, but it doesn’t have to be. The process itself is quite simple. It just means that you are going through the process of changing part or all of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Along with that conversion, there are a few consequences that you should consider.
If you think that you might want to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, here are a few of the things that you need to think of upfront.
Switching a traditional (deductible) IRA to a Roth IRA is effectively switching from a pre-tax account where the contributions were deducted from your income for tax purposes to an after-tax account where tax is paid upfront and in the process, you will have to pay taxes on the balance converted.
Converting from a Non-Deductible IRA
High earners who don’t qualify for Roth IRAs and Traditional (deductible) IRAs are still able to contribute to a Roth, but things could get tricky and understanding the rules in advance is required in order to plan properly.
In a simple scenario, where you have no IRA in place, you are able to open a non-deductible IRA then convert the money directly to a Roth where you will only owe taxes on amounts above your basis (earnings portion).
However, if you already have a traditional (deductible) IRA in place and want to open a non-deductible account, here’s where things get tricky. You have to keep in mind that the IRS looks at the aggregate of the accounts, which means you can’t only convert the non-deductible portion, instead they will be prorated.
Here is a real-world example to help you understand:
Let’s say that you have $15,000 in a traditional IRA. You also funded a separate non-deductible IRA account with an additional $5,000. You would not be able to convert the non-deductible $5,000 where you will owe taxes on the portion of the gain only. Instead, 75 percent ($15,000/ ($15,000+$5,000) = 0.75) of your contribution will be deemed to be made from your traditional IRA and 25 percent from the non-deductible IRA.
When Do Conversions Make Sense?
Now that you know the potential consequences of a Roth conversion, you should really evaluate whether this financial move makes sense for you. When you are asking yourself this question, you should be looking at two major factors: your current tax bracket and the age at which you would need your money.
Are your taxes now lower than what you would expect them to be in the future? If you are currently at a lower tax rate temporarily or are simply in the years where you are in a lower tax bracket than what you would expect to be in during retirement, you would be able to pay the lower rate now and not worry about it in the future. This is particularly relevant to some recent retirees in their gap years (the years between the start of retirement and the start of their social security benefits).
The other major question pertains to when you need the funds available. Do you need the money at 70 ½ (or 72 after the passing of the SECURE ACT)?
The biggest benefit a Roth account offers is that there are no required minimum distribution rules that could force you into a higher tax bracket during your retirement, even if you don’t necessarily need the money. Your account can instead be left to compound for longer if you do not need the funds immediately.
Another scenario where Roth conversions make the most sense is among younger high-income earners who do not qualify for a Roth. These individuals may want to make an after-tax contribution to take away the uncertainty of future tax rates if they are a very long way from retirement. You can open a traditional IRA to make the contribution and then convert it into a Roth account.
Before you make any major decisions, you should keep in mind that Roth accounts do have some extra rules. One of the biggest rules that catch people off guard is the five-year rule. If you withdraw funds before the five years are up, you could be facing a penalty on those withdrawals.
There is definitely a time and a place for Roth conversions. Make sure to weigh all of the options before you make such a major decision. If you are still unsure whether this move makes sense for you financially, talk to us before pulling the trigger we are able to guide you through the process.