Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Retiring with a Plan: Is the Roth 401(k) Conversion Worth Trying?

In 2010, you will be allowed to convert not only your current 401(k) plan but your IRAs and any 401(k) plan you might have rolled over into an IRA. The question: is rolling your retirement money into a Roth 410(k)the right move to make?

As with all financial decisions, this takes a little bit of planning and consideration. The conversion will cost you money, mostly in tax dollars paid because your 401(k) plan, IRA or rollover action, saved you from paying on taxes that a Roth 401(k) will require you to pay.

Traditional plans defer those taxes. But once you opt for the Roth 401(k) or even a Roth IRA, the taxes on the transferred amount will need to be paid. This is because the money invested in a Roth is done after taxes. The first consideration is whether you will be able to pay those taxes.

A Window Of Opportunity
You do have a window of opportunity though. Taxes due on these types of conversions in 2010 are payable in 2011 and you have two years to pay them. Estimate the taxes on what you have in these accounts based on your ordinary income tax rate. There are no penalties other than this in the conversion. But depending on the size of your account balance, you will need to set aside this amount starting before you make the conversion.

The simplest way to do this is to set aside the money in a separate account - preferably away from your emergency account. (An emergency account is savings set aside for emergencies and if you can have a minimum of three months set aside, you are well ahead of what you neighbor probably has.) On the other hand, this money should not be invested either. This is cash for taxes and has no risk potential. Some of you might be tempted to put it in a taxable indexed mutual fund to get some work out of the cash, but this would not necessarily be the wisest choice.

This is also an opportunity best used for those who are above the current $100,000 a year income threshold. These folks have been unable to save more for their retirement because of this ceiling. Expect this group to do this in droves - if they are smart. For the rest of us, the transition may not be worth it.

Many of us are underinvested as it is. We cannot accurately see what the future tax rate will be on these invested dollars yet we can be assured that we will not have the same tax rate as we do know. If studies are correct, most of us will be in a far lower tax bracket, lower than most of assumed we would be in come retirement.

Keep in mind that if you do exceed the AGI (adjusted gross income) of $100,000 the conversion doesn't necessarily mean that you will be able to contribute more. There is way around this. If you were to make nondeductible contributions to a Traditional IRA and roll them into a Roth IRA in 2010, but only the contributions, not the investment gains, that part of the rollover is not taxable. The gains on those "nondeductible" contributions would however be taxed.

Ultimately a Tax Issue
Phase-outs are linear, meaning what you make determines the level of contribution. Because this is a tax issue and you should always consider speaking with a tax professional first, the following is just a guide to see where you fall in terms of income, phase-outs and contribution levels.

If you are a Single filer, your Roth contribution limit is reduced when your modified AGI or adjusted gross income exceeds $101,000.00, It is eliminated completely when it reaches $116.000.00

A person wishing to determine their contribution status if they are Married Filing Jointly will find their limit is reduced when their modified AGI exceeds $159,000.00 and is eliminated completely when it reaches $169,000.00. When it falls in between those amounts, the linear contribution phases in. For instance, if you were half way between, your contribution would be reduced by 50%.

Another tax filing status might affect your contribution levels differently. A person Married but Filing Separately, (and) Living Apart would find their Roth contribution limit is reduced when the AGI income exceeds $101,000.00. It would be eliminated completely when your modified adjusted gross income reaches $116,000.00

Those choosing the Married Filing Separately, or Other has a limit as well. These folks will find their contribution is reduced when their modified AGI exceeds $0 and is eliminated completely when your modified adjusted gross income reaches $10,000.00.

Once it exceeds those limits, you will not be allowed to contribute.

But as with all financial investments, they are not static. They may in fact be worth less. Because of that, you may want to look into a IRA Recharacterization.

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