I was having dinner with my husband and was telling him that we needed to think about doing a Roth IRA conversion this year. The more detail I went into, the further his eyes glazed over. Finally, he waved his hand over his head and said, “You do the calculations and let me know if we should or not.” He gets that way when I go into “tax speak.” He’s not stupid either, he understands money, he has an MBA, but taxes tend to give him that deer in the headlights look. I’m guessing he’s not alone. Here’s my attempt at making it easy.
A regular IRA is money that you get a tax deduction for when you put the money in, but you pay taxes on it when you take the money out. If you take the money out before you’re 59 1/2, you also pay a 10% penalty on top of the tax you pay for taking it out.
A Roth IRA doesn’t give you any tax deduction when you put the money in, but when you take it out there is no tax on the withdrawl. The penalty, if you take it out early, is only on the earnings, not the main amount of money. It’s usually very small.
The whole issue of Roth vs regular is Pay Now or Pay Later. Normally I’m a “pay later” kind of person, but I like the benefits of the Roth so much that they often outweigh the disadvantage of Pay Now.
So what’s a Roth conversion? That’s when you have money that you put into a regular IRA and move it into a Roth IRA. When you do that, you will have to pay tax on the IRA money, but you won’t have to pay the penalty.
Why would anyone want to do that? It’s back to pay now versus pay later. It looks like tax rates will go up in the future. Roth IRA money would be tax-free income during retirement and we all like tax free income!
Why is it a big deal now? Normally, you can only convert to a Roth IRA if your income is less than $100,000 — that’s including the money being moved into a Roth IRA because that also counts as income. For this year only, 2010, there is no income limit. Anybody can play.
So what’s the catch? If you do a conversion, you have to pay the tax. You have two choices: 1. You pay all of the tax on the conversion with your 2010 tax return, or 2. You split the tax you pay into two equal installments with your 2011 and 2012 taxes.
Once again, normally I’m a pay later person, but right now Congress hasn’t extended the Bush tax cuts yet. Until we hear otherwise, tax rates are scheduled to go up for 2011. I’d make my decision based upon paying it all in 2010. If things change, then you’ve got options, otherwise, go for pay now.
Do I have to convert all of the money in my IRA to a Roth? No. Only as much as you want/can afford to.
Do you think I should do it? That depends. The younger you are, the more inclined I am to say yes. If you’ve ever put money into an IRA that you didn’t get a deduction for, I’m more inclined to say yes. How are you going to pay the additional tax? If you’re going to take it out of the IRA money you withdraw, then I’m definitely leaning against that. If’ you’ve got it in savings, or have withheld extra and are just giving up a big refund, then you’re good.
Bottom line is: as much as I like Roth IRAs and this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, it also involves paying more taxes. If you have the cash and can afford to do it, I say go for it. If you’re cash strapped already, it’s not such a good choice.