Post-2009 Roth IRA rollovers


As you have probably heard, in 2010, for the first time, you may roll over amounts in qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan accounts, such as 401(k)s and profit sharing plans, and regular IRAs, into Roth IRAs—regardless of your adjusted gross income (AGI).

What’s so attractive about a Roth IRA? Here’s a summary:

  • Earnings within the account are tax-sheltered (as they are with a regular qualified employer plan or IRA).
  • Unlike a regular qualified employer plan or IRA, withdrawals from a Roth IRA aren’t taxed if some relatively liberal conditions are satisfied.
  • A Roth IRA owner does not have to commence lifetime required minimum distributions (RMDs) after he or she reaches age 70 1/2 as is generally the case with regular qualified employer plans or IRAs. (For 2009, there was a moratorium on RMDs.)
  • Beneficiaries of Roth IRAs also enjoy tax-sheltered earnings (as with a regular qualified employer plan or IRA) and tax-free withdrawals (unlike with a regular qualified employer plan or IRA). They do, however, have to commence regular withdrawals from a Roth IRA after the account owner dies.

The catch, and it’s a big one, is that the rollover will be fully taxed, assuming the rollover is being made with pre-tax dollars (money that was deductible when contributed to an IRA, or money that wasn’t taxed to an employee when contributed to the qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan) and the earnings on those pre-tax dollars. For example, if you are in the 28% federal tax bracket and roll over $100,000 from a regular IRA funded entirely with deductible dollars to a Roth IRA, you’ll owe $28,000 of tax. So you’ll be paying tax now for the right to future tax-free withdrawals, and freedom from the RMD rules.

Should you consider making the rollover to a Roth IRA? The answer may be “yes” if:

  • You can pay the tax on the rollover with non-retirement-plan funds. Keep in mind that if you use retirement plan funds to pay the tax on the rollover, you’ll have less money building up tax-free within the account.
  • You anticipate paying taxes at a higher tax rate in the future than you are paying now. Many observers believe that tax rates for upper middle income and high income individuals will trend higher in future years. (See discussion below regarding Medicare tax on investment income beginning in 2013.)
  • You have a number of years to go before you might have to tap into the Roth IRA. This will give you a chance to recoup (via tax-deferred earnings and tax-deferred payouts) the tax hit you absorb on the rollover.
  • You are willing to pay a tax price now for the opportunity to pass on a source of tax-free income to your beneficiaries.

Roth rollovers made in 2010 represent a novel tax deferral opportunity and a novel choice. If you make a rollover to a Roth IRA in 2010, the tax that you’ll owe as a result of the rollover will be payable half in 2011 and half in 2012, unless you elect to pay the entire tax bill in 2010.

Why on earth would you choose to pay a tax bill in 2010 instead of deferring it to 2011 and 2012? Keep in mind that absent Congressional action, after 2010, the tax brackets above the 15% bracket will revert to their higher pre-2001 levels. That means the top four brackets will be 39.6%, 36%, 31%, and 28%, instead of the current top four brackets of 35%, 33%, 28%, and 25%.

What’s more, beginning in 2013, a Medicare tax will, for the first time, be applied to investment income. A new 3.8% tax will be imposed on net investment income of single taxpayers with AGI above $200,000 and joint filers over $250,000 (unindexed).

Net investment income is interest, dividends, royalties, rents, gross income from a trade or business involving passive activities, and net gain from disposition of property (other than property held in a trade or business). Net investment income is reduced by the deductions that are allocable to that income. Although the new tax won’t apply to income in tax-deferred retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans, taxable distributions from these plans can push your income over the limit subjecting your investment income to the higher rates.

Because the new tax on investment income won’t take effect for three years, that leaves more time for Congress and the IRS to tinker with it. So we can expect lots of refinements and “clarifications” between now and when the tax actually takes hold in 2013.

So if you believe there’s a strong chance your tax rates will go up after 2010, you may want to consider paying the tax on the Roth rollover in 2010.

Individuals ineligible to make deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, or to make any regular contributions to a Roth IRA, due to limitations based on adjusted gross income, may contribute to a traditional IRA and then convert this amount to a Roth IRA. So individuals who have never opened a traditional IRA because they weren’t able to make deductible contributions (and who have never rolled over pre-tax dollars to a regular IRA) should consider opening such an IRA and making the biggest allowable nondeductible contribution they can afford. If they convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA they will have to include in gross income only that part of the amount converted that is attributable to income earned after the IRA was opened, presumably a small amount. They could continue to make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA in later years, and roll the contributed amount over into a Roth IRA. However, note that if an individual previously made deductible IRA contributions, or rolled over qualified plan funds to an IRA, complex rules determine the taxable amount.

You need to consider your family’s entire financial situation before you plan for a large rollover to a Roth IRA. There also are many details that you should go over, such as whether the amounts you are thinking of switching to a Roth IRA are eligible for the rollover (technically, they are called “eligible rollover distributions”), whether you can make rollovers from your employer sponsored plan (for example, there are restrictions on rollovers from 401(k) plans), and the tax impact of rolling over amounts that represent nondeductible as well as deductible contributions. 

Finally, there are investment strategies you should consider such as setting up “segregated” Roth accounts where you put bonds, stocks and other assets in different Roth IRA accounts. Because you can’t recharacterize (undo) portions of a Roth IRA, if you are concerned about specific assets or asset classes losing value later, you can segregate those, at conversion, into several different accounts.  So if they did in fact lose value, you could recharacterize selected individual accounts.

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About Don James, CPA/PFS, CFP
Don is the Tax & Financial Planning partner with Kiplinger & Co., CPAs headquartered in sunny Cleveland, Ohio since 1982. He partners with business owners and families and specializes in goal achievement solutions, tax minimization strategies and serves in the role of gatekeeper of sound financial advice.

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