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Island Investing

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Roth IRAs in 2010

Great opportunity to convert to a Roth IRA next year. Here’s an article from the WSJ on the new rules:

Get Ready for 2010—the Year of the Roth IRA
Anne Tergesen
Wall Street Journal

New tax rules are about to give more people access to a Roth individual retirement account, one of the most effective vehicles in which to accumulate money for retirement or heirs.

Roth IRAs are currently off-limits to a whole group of people. Individuals with modified adjusted gross income of $120,000 or more can’t contribute to one of these accounts. For married couples, the threshold is $176,000. And individuals with modified adjusted gross income of more than $100,000 and married taxpayers who file separate returns are barred from moving assets held in traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs.

But starting Jan. 1, Uncle Sam will permanently eliminate both the income and filing-status restrictions on transferring money from a traditional IRA to a Roth — a procedure known as converting. So, anyone willing to pay the income taxes due upon making such a move will be able to funnel retirement savings into a Roth, where it can grow tax-free.

Money When You Want It

Under the new rules, high-income taxpayers who wish to contribute to a Roth IRA are still out of luck: Income limitations on funding these accounts will remain in effect. However, Uncle Sam’s decision to allow high earners to convert will give these individuals a back-door way to fund a Roth on a continual basis.

How so? Each year, these taxpayers can open a traditional IRA (which has no income limits) and contribute the maximum (currently, $6,000 for individuals age 50 and older) on a pretax or aftertax basis. Then, they can convert the assets to a Roth IRA.

Why bother with a conversion? Roths have several advantages over traditional IRAs.

Perhaps the biggest one concerns taxes — or a lack thereof. For the most part, withdrawals from Roth IRAs are tax-free as long as an account holder meets the rules for minimum holding periods. If you convert assets to a Roth from other IRAs or retirement plans, you have to hold those assets in a Roth for five years, or until you turn age 59½, whichever comes first, to make penalty-free withdrawals on your converted amounts. Each conversion has its own five-year clock.

Another benefit: no required distributions. With a traditional IRA, individuals are required to begin tapping their accounts — and to pay taxes on those withdrawals — after reaching age 70½. Roth accounts aren’t subject to mandatory distributions, so the money in a Roth can grow tax-free for a longer period of time.

If you are planning to leave your IRA to heirs, Roths have yet another advantage. Although people who inherit both traditional and Roth IRAs must make annual withdrawals from those accounts (based on their life expectancies), Roth beneficiaries owe no income tax on the money.

Tax Bill Upfront

Still, there is a cost to converting to a Roth — namely, the income-tax bill. When you withdraw money from your traditional IRA, you will have to pay income tax on the withdrawal, or, more precisely, on the portion of it that represents pretax contributions and earnings.

In 2010, Uncle Sam is offering taxpayers who convert a special deal: They can choose to report the amount they convert on their 2010 tax returns, or they can spread it equally across their 2011 and 2012 returns. (If you are worried that Congress may raise tax rates, consider paying the tax bill in 2010.)

To determine whether it makes financial sense for you to convert, it’s important to consider various factors. For example, converting may be the right move if you expect to pay higher future tax rates or if the value of your IRA account is temporarily depressed, says Ed Slott, an IRA consultant in Rockville Centre, N.Y. In either case, by converting to a Roth today you’ll lock in a lower tax bill than you would otherwise pay.

To estimate your potential tax bill, first calculate your “basis.” Expressed as a percentage, this is the ratio of two numbers: aftertax contributions you have made to your IRAs (if any), and the total balance in all your IRAs.

For example, if you contributed $40,000 aftertax to your IRAs and have a total of $250,000 in those accounts, your basis would be 16% (or $40,000 divided by $250,000). As a result, if you plan to convert $100,000 to a Roth, 16% of that $100,000 (or $16,000) could be transferred tax-free.

Another factor is how long you can afford to leave the money in a Roth. Because the Roth’s major advantage lies in its ability to deliver tax-free growth from age 70½, the longer you can afford to forego withdrawals, “the more converting plays to your advantage,” says Aimee DeCamillo, head of personal retirement solutions at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

Before pulling the trigger, speak to a financial adviser. You also can crunch the numbers using online calculators at sites including and

Maximize the Benefit

If you determine that it pays to convert, the following strategies can help you maximize the benefit:

Financial experts say it’s ideal to have money to pay the taxes due upon conversion from a source other than your IRA. That allows you to retain a bigger sum in your tax-sheltered retirement plan.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to convert your entire IRA. It might make sense to do it piecemeal, as you can afford it, over a number of years.

Put converted holdings into a new account, rather than an existing Roth. That way, if the value falls after you’ve paid the tax bill, you can change your mind, “recharacterize” the account (meaning you move the money back into a traditional IRA) and wipe out your income-tax liability.

You have until Oct. 15 of the year following the year of conversion to recharacterize. For example, if you were to convert your IRA to a Roth in 2010, you would have until Oct. 15, 2011 to recharacterize it. Later on, you could choose to convert the assets to a Roth again.

Better still: Consider opening a separate Roth for each type of investment you hold. That way, you can recharacterize the ones that perform poorly and leave the winners alone.