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2010 Roth IRA Conversion Rules

A year ago, when I met with my accountant, we spent some time talking about our retirement, our goals, and how we were going to reach them. In looking at our retirement accounts, I saw that the vast majority of our savings were in tax-deferred accounts like 401(k)s and Rollover IRAs. We only had a very small percentage in tax-free Roth IRA accounts, which I’ve always said was probably the best retirement account in existence. Where else can you invest in the stock market and have your gains be entirely tax free? Nowhere. 🙂

Right now, you can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA as long as your adjusted gross income is under $100,000. The $100,000 limit applies whether you are single or married, tax filing classification wise, which makes it one of the few limits that is the same for both. So if your AGI is under $100,000, then you can convert today and you don’t have to wait for 2010.

Do You Want To Do This?

Before we get into the mechanics and the rules, you have to ask yourself whether you want to do this. The benefit of converting is that your assets can now grow tax free. With a typical Roth IRA, you don’t deduct the contributions from your taxes so you gain no immediate tax benefit. The tax benefit comes on the tail end when distributions from that Roth IRA are tax free. With a traditional IRA, you gain an immediate tax benefit because you can deduct your contributions but distributions are taxed many years later as ordinary income.

We have two major decisions during the conversion process:

  1. Tax diversification: Since we won’t know the tax rates, or how tax will be collected (more income taxes? more sales taxes? VAT?), it’s difficult to say which type of account is better. The basic decision is that if you think your tax bracket will be higher when you draw from the account, then you want a Roth IRA. I’m of the belief that you should diversify between tax benefits today and tax benefits tomorrow, so I want to convert a few of my accounts over so I get a more even mix.
  2. Paying the tax today: When you convert a Traditional to a Roth, you have to pay taxes on that conversion. I’ll go into greater detail on this but the gist is that you will need to claim the conversion amount as ordinary income and pay taxes on it. There are opportunities to defer on a limited basis but you still have to come up with the funds somehow.

Now that we have a good idea of the big decision points, let’s get into the mechanics.

$100,000 AGI Rule Removed

2010 is such a big deal because the $100,000 AGI rule is lifted, making a conversion possible for many dual-income families. According to the Journal of Financial Planning, it’s believed that more that 13 million people will become eligible for a Roth conversion when the limit is lifted.

Conversion Tax Rules & Implications

When you claim the ordinary income and pay taxes: Normally, when you make a conversion, you must claim the conversion amount as income the following year. If you convert in 2009, it is considered ordinary income for 2009 and taxes are due April 15th, 2010. However, there’s a special rule for conversions made in 2010, you can opt to recognize half the conversion amount as ordinary income in 2011 and the other half in 2012 (or recognize it in 2010). This special rule is only for conversions in 2010. If you convert in 2011 and beyond, the normal rules apply.

Experts advise that you should only convert if you can pay the taxes with other funds.. You also have the option of paying for the taxes from the account itself but every expert I’ve read recommends against that. If you want your money to grow tax-free, it’s best to maximize how much it can grow. If you’re planning on making a conversion, start saving for the taxes today.

Recognizing the conversion amount as ordinary income can cause problems. This is an issue many people overlook. When you convert, you have to recognize the conversion amount as ordinary income. This can have a significant effect on your finances. You may become ineligible for certain deductions or credits because of their income phase-out requirements so be sure to take this into account.

Non-Deductible Traditional IRA Loophole

One big consequence of lifting the AGI limit is that it creates a loophole for high income earners shut out of the Roth IRA. In general, if your employer offers a 401(k) or other defined contribution plan, you can’t deduct your contributions to a Traditional IRA. If you also earn too much, then you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA – leaving you with one less valuable option: a nondeductible Traditional IRA. It’s less valuable because you don’t get to deduct your contributions and your growth is taxed when you withdraw the funds in retirement. (Thanks Dan!)

In 2010, with the $100,000 AGI limit removed, you will be able to convert a nondeductible Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA without paying a penny. Since you’ve already paid the taxes, you won’t have to pay them again to convert it into a Roth. This loophole lets high earners “contribute” to a Roth IRA.

The one thing you have to look out for, which my accountant warned, was that you need to segregate your nondeductible Traditional IRA from your other IRAs. If you make a nondeductible contribution into a regular Traditional IRA, where you’ve taken deductions, then it muddies the water and causes issues. So if you want to use this tactic, make sure it’s segregated into its own account. It just makes everything easier for you down the road.

How to Convert

While it’s called a conversion, you’re actually rolling it over from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. The process will be similar to when you rollover any type of account, such as a 401(k) to a Rollover IRA. Since you would usually roll the assets over without changing brokers, the process may be as simple as filling out a form. Your best option is to contact your broker and find out what you need to do.

I believe I covered all of the rules and tried to give you a little insight into how I’m making the decision. The hardest part about all this is that the future is unclear. If there’s something I’m missing, let me know and I’ll add it to the post.

(Photo: doug88888 [3])