Monday, January 24, 2011

How Do I Convert a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA?

People are buzzing about Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). Unlike traditional IRAs, "qualified" distributions from a Roth IRA are tax-free, provided they are held for five years and are made after age 59 1/2, death or disability. You can establish a Roth IRA just as you would a traditional IRA. You can also convert assets in a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

Before 2010, only taxpayers with adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less were eligible to convert their traditional IRA (provided they were not married taxpayers filing separate returns). Beginning in 2010, anyone can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, regardless of income level or filing status.

Comment: While you can only contribute a maximum of $5,000 to a Roth IRA for 2010 (plus a $1,000 catch-up contribution if you are over age 50), you can convert an unlimited amount from a traditional IRA.

Conversion is treated as a taxable distribution of assets from the traditional IRA to the IRA holder, although it is not subject to the 10 percent tax on early distributions. While paying taxes on conversion is undesirable, the advantages of holding assets in a Roth IRA usually outweigh this disadvantage, especially if you will not be retiring soon. Furthermore, if you converted assets in 2010, you had the option of including them in income in 2011 and 2012 (50 percent each year) instead of 2010.

Comment: Generally, this income-splitting would have been advantageous to any taxpayer who does not expect a sharp increase in income in 2011 or 2012.

There are four ways to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA:

A rollover - you receive a distribution from a traditional IRA and roll it over to a Roth IRA within 60 days;
Trustee-to-trustee transfer - you direct the trustee of the traditional IRA to transfer an amount to the trustee of a Roth IRA;
Same-trustee transfer - the trustee of the traditional IRA transfers assets to a Roth IRA maintained by the same trustee; or
Redesignation - you designate a traditional IRA as a Roth IRA, instead of opening a new Roth account.

Comment: The account holder does not have to convert all of the assets in the traditional IRA.

Another advantage of converting assets from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is that you can change your mind and put the assets back into the traditional IRA. This is known as a recharacterization. You have until the due date, with extensions, for the return filed for the year of conversion. Thus, if you converted assets in 2010, you have until mid-October in 2011 to undo the conversion.

This ability to recharacterize the conversion allows you to use hindsight to check whether your assets declined in value after the conversion. Since you are paying taxes on the amount converted, a decline in asset value means that you paid taxes on phantom income that no longer exists. However, if you convert assets into multiple Roth IRAs, you can choose to recharacterize the assets in a Roth IRA that decreased in value, while maintaining the conversion for a Roth IRA's assets that appreciated in value.

The use of a Roth IRA can be a savvy investment, but whether to convert assets is not an easy decision. If you would like to explore your options, please contact this office.

Circular 230 notification - Any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in this document was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.