Convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA?

March 5, 2009

Given the significant market downturn it may not be a bad time to convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. Right now, anyone with modified adjusted gross income of less than $100,000 a year (individual or joint income) can convert a traditional IRA account to a Roth IRA. Higher-income Americans are scheduled to get the same break in 2010.

Remember that when you do a conversion, you must pay income tax on the amount you are converting, which can be all of the funds in the traditional IRA or just a portion of those assets. But, subject to certain restrictions, you won’t pay tax when you finally need to withdraw your money. That’s where the silver lining comes in for you or for your heirs if you pass that money on to them.
Take another look at your statements and how much your investments are down. Assuming that the markets perform historically and fight their way back, your tax-free amount available for withdrawal could accumulate significantly under that Roth status.

Things to consider:

1) Time to retirement matters: If you have more than five years until you plan to withdraw your retirement funds, conversion of traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA might make sense. The longer the time span where earnings can grow tax deferred, the greater the benefit of being able to withdraw those earnings without paying tax on them.

2) Your tax rate at retirement is important: Many people, such as business owners, may be paying taxes now at a fairly low rate. So they might pay higher taxes at retirement. If that’s the case, converting to a Roth might make a lot of sense. Additionally, with Social Security benefits being taxable at certain income levels, Roth IRAs can allow you to limit or eliminate such taxes.

3) A Roth conversion can be expensive: You’ll have to pay taxes on contributions that you previously deducted, as well as taxes on the accumulated earnings. Also, you need to be aware that conversion could push you into a higher tax bracket, especially if you’ve accumulated sizeable earnings over the years. This is why a conversion needs to be planned with a tax expert. Why? It may trigger the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) due to those high earnings.

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