One of the most important financial goals for retirees is maximization of after-tax income. There are two ways to accomplish this: (a) maximize pre-tax income and (b) minimize income tax liability. A Roth IRA can go a long way toward helping you achieve the latter.
There are two ways to fund a Roth IRA: (a) annual contributions and (b) conversions. Annual contributions, in and of themselves, generally won’t result in a significant source of retirement income due to the relatively low limitation – currently $5,500 or $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older. In addition, eligibility to make Roth IRA contributions is limited to the extent that your income exceeds defined limits.
Roth IRA conversions, on the other hand, have the ability to generate substantial after-tax income while also reducing income tax liability for up to 20 to 30 years or more of retirement. Since income tax liability on the value of Roth IRA conversions will need to be paid, timing of conversions is key. See the May 10, 2010 post, Be on the Lookout for Roth IRA Conversion Opportunities, for a discussion of this topic.
There are five ways that you can potentially reduce your income tax liability and increase your after-tax income during your retirement years by doing Roth IRA conversions.
1. Never pay income tax on the growth of your Roth IRA
While you’re required to include the value of your IRA, 401(k) or other qualified plan assets that you convert to a Roth IRA in your taxable income in the year of conversion, 100% of the growth of your Roth IRA is excluded from taxation. This is true whether or not you ever take any distributions from your Roth IRA.
Individuals who did Roth IRA conversions in March, 2009 when the Dow dipped below 7,000 didn’t mind paying income tax on those conversions in retrospect given the fact that the Dow is currently hovering over 17,000 less than six years later. The income tax savings on the growth of the equity portion of their converted accounts over this period of time plus future potential growth is significant for those in this situation.
2. Roth IRA accounts aren’t subject to required minimum distribution rules
If you don’t do a Roth IRA conversion, 100% of the value of your traditional IRA, 401(k), and other qualified plan assets, including appreciation, will be subject to IRS’ required minimum distribution, or RMD, rules. These rules require you to take annual minimum distributions from your retirement plan accounts beginning by April 1st of the year following the year that you turn 70-1/2. 100% of distributions reduced by any allowable portion of nondeductible contributions are taxable.
As an example, suppose you were born on January 7, 1940 and you own a traditional IRA account with a value of $500,000 on December 31, 2013, you would be required to take a minimum distribution of $21,008.40 from your account by December 31, 2014 and include it in your 2014 taxable income. If instead you owned a Roth IRA account with the same value, you wouldn’t be required to take any distributions from your account.
3. Potentially reduce net investment income tax
The RMD rules sometimes force people to take distributions from their taxable IRA accounts that they don’t need. Often times, they transfer RMDs from their taxable IRA account to a nonretirement investment account and leave them there. For individuals with high levels of income, this can result in additional taxation as a result of subjecting the earnings on their nonretirement account to the net investment income tax of 3.8%. This isn’t an issue for Roth IRA account holders since the RMD rules don’t apply to them.
4. Roth IRA distributions aren’t included when calculating taxable Social Security benefits
The taxation of Social Security benefits is dependent upon your combined income and tax filing status. Combined income includes adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest, and 50% of Social Security benefits.
Single filers are subject to tax on 50% of their Social Security benefits for combined income between $25,000 and $34,000 and up to 85% of benefits when combined income exceeds $34,000. Married filing joint taxpayers are subject to tax on 50% of their Social Security benefits for combined income between $32,000 and $44,000 and up to 85% of benefits when combined income exceeds $44,000.
Roth IRA distributions aren’t included in adjusted gross income, therefore, they don’t affect taxation of Social Security benefits.
5. More opportunities for income tax bracket planning
For all taxpayers, taxable income is subject to seven different rates of tax ranging from 10% to 39.6% depending upon the amount of taxable income. Given the foregoing four potential ways of reducing taxable income and associated income tax liability, Roth IRA conversions can also reduce the income tax rates that are used to calculate income tax liability on other sources of income. This allows for more opportunities for income tax bracket planning to potentially further reduce income tax liability in one or more years.
Although it’s not income-tax related, one other potential benefit of Roth IRA conversions that shouldn’t be overlooked is their impact on the calculation of Medicare Part B premiums. Monthly Medicare Part B premiums currently range from $104.90 to $335.70 depending upon tax filing status and the amount of modified adjusted gross income from two years ago. Roth IRA distributions aren’t included in the calculation of adjusted gross income. As such, they don’t affect the amount of Medicare Part B premiums paid.
As you can see, assuming (a) you can get over the hurdle of prepaying a portion of your income tax liability when you do Roth IRA conversions and (b) you have sufficient nonretirement funds to pay the tax, this can create several tax reduction opportunities as well as a potential reduction of Medicare Part B premiums throughout your retirement years. These benefits, combined with the ability to eliminate taxation on the growth of Roth IRA accounts, can result in greater and longer-lasting after-tax retirement income compared to not doing any Roth IRA conversions.
Robert Klein, CPA, PFS, CFP®, RICP®, CLTC® is the founder and president of Retirement Income Center in Newport Beach, California. Bob is also the sole proprietor of Robert Klein, CPA. Bob applies his unique background, experience, expertise, and specialization in tax-sensitive retirement income planning strategies to optimize the longevity of his clients’ after-tax retirement income and assets. He does this as an independent financial advisor using customized holistic planning solutions based on each client’s needs and personality.