After waiting nearly> four years, a new group of American workers is about to have access to the Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA).
Beginning in January 2010, most individuals who have a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of more than $100,000 will be able to convert a portion of their retirement savings from their traditional IRA or 401(k) into a Roth IRA. The change was signed into law by President Bush in May 2006 as part of a $70 billion tax cut.
With a Roth IRA, participants are taxed on their contributions, but they can make tax-free withdrawals once they hit age 59 1/2 (although they must have held the account for at least five years). Before the new regulation, the plan worked best when the person contributing to the account was in a lower tax bracket than they expected to be in the future, when they started withdrawing money for their retirement. That way, they wouldn't have to pay much in taxes upfront, says Pamela Hess, the director of retirement research at Hewitt Associates, a human resources services company.
But now, the Roth IRA could be appealing for a wider variety of savers. Higher-earning individuals will soon be able to convert to a Roth IRA. People who find themselves unemployed or making less and are suddenly in a lower tax bracket should also consider rolling over existing retirement accounts into a Roth IRA.
Legislation in Congress could change the landscape of IRAs, as well, making them the default retirement savings option for many Americans. President Obama s financial regulatory reform legislation includes a proposal that would require employers to set up automatic-enrollment IRAs, retirement accounts that allow for tax-deductible contributions. If the measure passes, companies that don't offer a tax-deferred retirement-savings plan would make employee contributions into IRA accounts through direct payroll deposits.
Here are five reasons to consider converting to a Roth IRA soon:
Income rules eliminated next year
High-income earners will have a momentary shot at taking advantage of the Roth IRA's perks. In 2010, most people will be able to convert a portion of their traditional IRA or 401(k) into a Roth IRA, regardless of their income.
Now, conversions are only an option if your MAGI not including additional taxable income triggered by the conversion itself is $100,000 or less. Married individuals who file their taxes separately are ineligible regardless of their income. (To contribute, as opposed to convert, to a Roth IRA, single filers need a MAGI of below $120,000, and those who are married filing jointly need an MAGI below $176,000. The maximum contribution is $5,000 a year or $6,000 for those who are at least 50 by year-end.)
Spread the conversion tax hit over two years
Another new perk coming next year: deferred taxes. Those who convert to a Roth IRA in 2010 can spread their tax liability out across 2011 and 2012, thereby reducing some of the immediate tax hit, says Petra Campos, a retirement director for Charles Schwab. They ll pay half the income they convert in 2011 and the other half in 2012 at whatever tax bracket they re in during those years, says Sheryl Garrett, a fee-only certified financial planner.
Seeing your traditional IRA or 401(k) shrink by 30% in a year isn t much to smile about, but if you convert a portion of these accounts to a Roth IRA now, you ll pay less in taxes.
When you convert part of your IRA or 401(k) balances to a Roth IRA, you pay taxes on the amount being converted. Because account balances have shrunk, your taxable balance is likely to be considerably lower today than it was when the market was stronger. In effect, this is an opportunity to use the market downturn to your advantage, says Linda Robertson, a Philadelphia-based financial planner with Financial Finesse, a financial education company.
Potentially higher tax rates
All of those stimulus package initiatives and government bailouts are going to cost money. As a result, today's tax rates might be the lowest you'll see for the rest of your life, Robertson says. The consensus is that we may see taxes rise but no one knows how much, she says.
If you are considering converting to a Roth IRA, you should get a move on, especially if you're young or the victim of a wage cut or layoff and are in the 10% or 15% tax bracket. In a year or two, you may be in a higher tax bracket because of a new job or salary increase, so it's best to take advantage of your low tax rates now, Garrett says.
For those concerned about reaching their 80s or 90s with enough cash to leave to their children, the Roth IRA offers some generous estate-planning benefits.
When a traditional IRA or 401(k) is passed on to a beneficiary, the beneficiary has to pay taxes on whatever is left in that nest egg based on their own tax bracket not the tax bracket of the original account holder. With a Roth IRA, the beneficiary acquires the account without having to pay taxes on the cash that s left. (The original holder had already paid taxes on the contributions.)
The Roth IRA also doesn t require minimum withdrawals, so you could leave the entire nest egg untouched for a beneficiary, Campos says. Typically, traditional IRAs require minimum withdrawals by age 70 1/2.