Retirement Planning

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Should I Do a Roth Conversion?

December 13, 2018
Roger Young, CFP®, Senior Financial Planner
Deciding whether to convert assets to Roth involves consideration around the amount of taxes you will pay on the conversion amount and whether the money will ultimately be passed on to your heirs.

Key Points

  • Converting assets to Roth enables potentially tax-free distributions later, as well as more flexibility and a hedge against higher tax rates.
  • Because you will pay ordinary income tax right away on the amount you convert, the strategy isn’t for everyone.
  • It may make sense to do a Roth conversion in a low-income year for someone with irregular income.
  • Converting assets to Roth early in retirement before facing required minimum distributions may benefit affluent households, particularly if you plan to leave an estate.

This strategy has pros and cons. Here’s why people early in retirement should give it a close look.

If you’re approaching retirement, you may have amassed a healthy nest egg in Traditional IRAs or retirement plans. You’ve probably heard about the option to convert those assets into a Roth account.

It’s important to understand what that entails—and when the strategy makes sense to employ.

Benefits of a Roth

A Roth account’s key benefit is tax-free distributions. Generally, if you’re over the age of 59½ and your Roth account has been open for at least five years, all of the money you take out of it is tax-free. Additionally:

  • Roth IRAs don’t have required minimum distributions (RMDs) for the original owner, whereas Traditional IRAs are subject to RMDs for the year you reach age 70½. So converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA reduces RMDs (and the risk that they will increase your tax rate).
  • Increasing Roth assets can improve your tax diversification—the mix of account types with different tax characteristics. Basically, that means you have more flexibility when deciding how to fund your retirement lifestyle.
  • Roth assets are a hedge against higher statutory tax rates in the future. Following the individual tax cuts passed in late 2017, you might believe that tax rates are unlikely to be any lower during your lifetime.

Times When a Roth Conversion May Not Be for You

This sounds good. The catch, of course, is that you pay ordinary income tax right away on the amount you convert. Naturally, the strategy isn’t for everyone. It generally doesn’t make sense if you pay taxes on conversion at the same or higher rate than when distributions are taken later. There are a number of reasons this could happen.

  • Many people have lower taxable income in retirement. They may reduce spending, which means they don’t need as much income. In addition, at least 15% of Social Security income is nontaxable depending on the retiree’s income.
  • When you take retirement distributions, they may represent a large portion of your income and straddle tax brackets, resulting in a lower average tax rate. In contrast, the conversion probably adds to the income taxed primarily at your marginal, or highest, rate.
  • Some states don’t tax retirement distributions, or have no income taxes at all, which is especially important to consider if you might relocate.

There are also factors to consider specifically for the year of conversion. Higher taxable income that year could have one or more of these negative effects:

  • A higher tax bracket
  • A higher portion of Social Security benefits subject to tax
  • Higher Medicare premiums
  • Less eligibility for student financial aid

2 Types of People Who SHOULD Consider a Roth Conversion

With these potential pitfalls in mind, when does it make sense to consider a Roth conversion? We have identified two key opportunities.

1. A low-income year for someone with irregular income. This could even be a year when you’ve been unemployed. Unfortunately, those years often coincide with cash flow challenges, making extra tax payments impractical. But if you have lined up new employment without falling below a prudent cash level, a conversion could make sense.

2. Early in retirement before you face RMDs. The strategy is most valuable for affluent households when most or all of the following circumstances apply:

  • You expect to leave an estate.
  • You can comfortably afford the conversion taxes and fund your spending with cash or a taxable investment account.
  • Your traditional (pretax) accounts are likely to generate RMDs that you won’t need for spending. And importantly, they will likely be taxed at a significantly higher rate than what you pay on the conversion. (For example: Your peak RMDs will ultimately be taxed at a 24% rate, whereas you can execute the conversion at a tax rate of 12%.)
  • You don’t already have significant Roth assets—perhaps because Roth contributions were unavailable or unattractive at your income level when you were working.
  • You expect your heirs’ tax rates won’t be lower than the rate you pay on the conversion.  

Final Thoughts

Finally, keep in mind a few more points:

  • No turning back. A Roth conversion is a permanent decision. You used to be able to reverse (“recharacterize”) a conversion, but that option was eliminated as part of the 2017 tax legislation.
  • Only one part of a bigger plan. Evaluating Roth conversions should be coordinated with a broader retirement income strategy, including your Social Security claiming decision and the order you draw from different accounts.
  • A complex matter. Taxation of retirement income sources is complicated. You should strongly consider consulting with a financial planner and/or tax adviser to evaluate your specific circumstances.

A Roth conversion strategy is worth investigating early in retirement, before RMDs kick in. That way you’ll know whether it can help you achieve your goals while there’s still time to take action.

This material has been prepared by T. Rowe Price Group, Inc., for general and educational purposes only. This material does not provide fiduciary recommendations concerning investments or investment management. T. Rowe Price Group, Inc., its affiliates, and its associates do not provide legal or tax advice. Any tax-related discussion contained in this material, including any attachments/links, is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, for the purpose of (i) avoiding any tax penalties or (ii) promoting, marketing, or recommending to any other party any transaction or matter addressed herein. Please consult your independent legal counsel and/or professional tax advisor regarding any legal or tax issues raised in this material.

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