Roth IRA Conversions

Summary: To convert or not to convert, that is the question. Many websites, and even some advisers use simplistic calculators, that don’t do the decision justice. Others use modeling so sophisticated they could be mistaken for space shuttle algorithms. While some advisers bring nearly religious zeal to their views, the realities are that for some taxpayers the answer is obvious, for some a coin toss (not as cool as the slick models, but perhaps as effective of an analysis for many). We’ll try to demystify the issue with some background. Then we’ll try to help you identify whether you seem to be pretty obviously in the convert or not convert camp. For those in the gray zone in between we’ll try to give you some pointers to discuss with your advisers.  In the end the Solomon-like approach of splitting the baby might just be the most prudent approach for the gray zone.


What’s the Deal?


Roth IRA’s are cool: All growth is tax-exempt. There are no minimum distributions required at age 70½ as exist for regular IRAs. That’s big since the assets can continue to compound tax free which enhances the Roth asset growth prospects (hopefully enough to cover the tax paid and then some) and possibly creditor protected. If your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) exceeds $100,000 you cannot convert your regular IRA to a Roth but in 2010 that limit disappears. If you convert in 2010 the income tax due can be spread out over two years. You can elect out of this deferral and pay all the income tax in 2010 if that proves advantageous (e.g., large rise in future tax rates). Election has to be made by 10/15/11, on an extended return. Hedge your bets and extend.


Favoring Conversion


For conversion to make sense some of the following should be present: Future tax rates are higher than the rate you pay now when you convert. This creates a positive tax arbitrage. Rising rates seem like a Wilt the Stilt slam dunk…how could they not? You have significant tax attributes are available to offset the current income tax triggered (e.g, charitable contribution carryovers, investment credit carry-forwards, “Madoff-type” carryovers). Post-conversion Roth IRA funds will almost assuredly not be needed to support living costs for a long time if ever, so that the assets can remain invested to compound tax free to be bequeathed to your heirs. This is a key question which requires an analysis of your cash flow, assets and “burn-rate” (spending). If you’ll bequeath your Roth to a properly designed generation skipping tax (GST) exempt trust you grandchildren may be able to withdraw Roth IRA money over their life expectancies. That’s lots of years of income tax free growing.    Adequate cash resources outside of IRA plans are available to pay the income tax due on conversion.


Asset Protection


Asset protection worries might make conversion a great deal if your post-conversion Roth will be protected under state creditor protection laws from claimants. Conversion could present an opportunity to convert a regular IRA to a Roth IRA, and using outside funds to pay the tax, you have effectively taken 60-cent dollars that are protected inside a regular IRA, and turned them into 100-cent dollars that are protected inside the resulting Roth IRA, and eliminated a non-protected asset by using it to pay the income tax on conversion. You can also continue making contributions to your Roth IRA after age 70½ and never have to withdraw from it. That leaves Roth dollars snug and safe. In contrast you cannot contribute to a regular IRA after 70 ½ and you have to take out minimum required distributions (MRDs) each year.  


Other Factors


To get it right many variables need to be factored into your analysis. What will your post-conversion investment rate of return be? Is there a tax bracket arbitrage available? For example, if you’re terminally ill it might pay to convert while married filing joint at a lower tax rate than your surviving spouse will have if she takes distributions out of a taxable IRA at a single person’s tax bracket after your death. Arbitrage can be negative if converting pushes you from a current low bracket into a higher tax bracket. Will the government directly or indirectly taxing Roth dollars (e.g., via phase outs of other tax benefits based on Roth balances or withdrawals, etc.)? If the federal fisc remains hungry in decades to come most anything might be possible. What financial needs for health or other emergencies might cause Roth funds to be tapped before anticipated? Can you really model these factors? How can you guesstimate how the government may change the tax rules applicable to well to do taxpayers, yet alone guesstimate the percentage likelihood of such changes?. If you convert the tax you pay will be removed from your estate possibly lowering your estate tax. If you split the baby and only convert say ½ your IRA, perhaps you should first split the IRA into parts, say a bond part and equity part. Then convert the equity part only which has more likelihood of appreciation then the bond part.


Estate Tax and 691(c)


What’s the estate tax consequence of Roth versus not? Some background first. Your IRA is included in your taxable estate and could be subject it to a 45% estate tax. Since a regular IRA represents income that has not been subjected to income tax (ignoring non-deductible contributions), this is called “income in respect of a decedent” (IRD). IRD is subject to income tax as your heirs receive it. So the 55% left after the estate tax bite gets bitten again with a 35% income tax rate (which will likely increase in the future). Ouch! The double tax whammy is mitigated by an income tax deduction for the federal estate tax paid. Code Sec. 691(c). This is not a perfect offset. If you’re in a state that has an estate tax there is no offset for state estate taxes paid. The beneficiary paying the tax might not be the one inheriting the IRA and getting the benefit. The IRD deduction may be subject to phase out of deductions under Code Section 68 reducing the benefit. So, it might be a better deal to die Roth’d.


How to Convert


If conversion still seems plausible after the initial evaluation review timing of tax payments with your CPA. You can pay all at once or spread the payments. Consider whether you can divide your IRA into separate IRAs by asset class and convert each asset class IRA separately. That way, if a particular asset class IRA declines in value before the extended due date for the return, you can un-convert (recharacterize) it and avoid the tax.  So if you convert 1/1/10 right after the ball drops in Times Square, you can hold  your tax breath until 10/15/11 to decide. That’s a 21 ½ month looky looky. Why pay income tax to convert a looser? Be wary that the IRS and/or Congress may get hip to this jig and try to kibosh it. They’re trying to do just that with zeroed out short term GRATs that similarly present a “head you wins, tails try again” paradigm. If you un-convert you have to wait 30 days before trying again. Review estimated tax payment requirements with your CPA.

Qualified Plans


If your child is your qualified retirement plan beneficiary she can direct your plan directly from the qualified retirement plan to either a: (1)Roth IRA; or (2)Non-spousal beneficiary regular IRA rollover IRA. However, once the qualified plan has been rolled into a regular IRA it cannot thereafter be converted to a Roth IRA. Caution – if you rolled an ERISA plan into a regular IRA and now Roth it some experts worry this might taint the protection you had under the Bankruptcy Protection Act.

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