Considering a Partial 72(t) Roth IRA Conversion? – Tread Lightly

Considering a Partial 72(t) Roth IRA Conversion? – Tread Lightly

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The topic of this week’s blog post is one which, quite frankly, doesn’t pertain to very many people. You may be wondering why I’m writing about it if this is the case. Besides bringing the topic to the attention of those who may be affected by it, the main reason I’m writing this post is to provide interested readers with an example of a tax planning strategy that, while it doesn’t run afoul of any IRS rules, hasn’t been officially blessed by IRS.

As with many of my blog posts, this one was inspired by one of my clients. Mr. and Mrs. R., who are retired, aren’t yet receiving Social Security benefits, and derive the majority of their income from Mrs. R.’s 72(t) IRA and two nonqualified term certain annuities, a sizeable portion of which is nontaxable.

For those of you unfamiliar with a 72(t) IRA, some brief background. Generally you must wait until age 59-1/2 to begin taking distributions from an IRA, otherwise you’re subject to a 10% premature distribution penalty in addition to any income tax liability on your distributions. IRS has carved out an exception to this rule whereby you won’t be subject to the 10% penalty if you receive a series of substantially equal periodic payments, or “SOSEPP,” from your IRA for the greater of five years or until you reach 59-1/2. A 72(t) IRA account is a traditional or a Roth IRA account from which a SOSEPP is being made.

While Mrs. R has been taking her SOSEPP for five years, she’s still about a year and a half from turning 59-1/2. If Mrs. R. discontinues her SOSEPP before she turns 59-1/2, IRS would consider this to be a modification of her SOSEPP. As such, Mrs. R. would be subject to a 10% premature distribution penalty on future distributions from her IRA. Furthermore, the 10% penalty would also be applied retroactively to all of the distributions she has already taken from her 72(t) IRA.

In addition to their 72(t) IRA and nonqualified annuity distributions, my clients recently sold a rental property at a loss of $26,000. After reducing their adjusted gross income by various itemized deductions, they were projected to have a 2010 taxable loss of approximately $25,000. While this would result in no income tax liability, without further income tax planning, this would be a potentially wasted opportunity to recognize additional income and still pay no income taxes.

How could my clients recognize additional income? While they could potentially sell securities at a gain in their nonretirement account, this would be offset by a sizeable capital loss carryover. The other option was to do a Roth IRA conversion of Mrs. R.’s 72(t) IRA. IRS regulations permit a full Roth IRA conversion of a 72(t) IRA provided that the IRA owner continues his/her 72(t) distributions from the Roth IRA account following conversion.

Since the value of Mrs. R’s. 72(t) IRA was approximately $280,000, the potential income tax liability attributable to a full 2010 conversion of Mrs. R.’s 72(t) IRA to a Roth IRA couldn’t be justified based on my client’s current and projected multi-year income tax planning even with splitting the reporting of Mrs. R.’s conversion income between 2011 and 2012. I calculated that Mrs. R. could do a partial conversion of $50,000 without incurring any income tax liability due to my client’s ability to use a net operating loss carryover that they couldn’t otherwise use in 2010. Furthermore, Mrs. R.’s conversion amount could be as much as $70,000 before my client’s marginal income tax rate would exceed 15%.

Since IRS has endorsed the full conversion of a 72(t) IRA to a Roth IRA, it would seem that there should be no issue with a partial conversion so long as the 72(t) payments continue following the conversion. Logically, the post-conversion 72(t) payment amount should be paid from both the original 72(t) IRA and the new Roth IRA accounts based on the allocation of the relative values of the two accounts. The problem is that IRS has provided no guidance on partial Roth IRA conversions of 72(t) IRA accounts, including the allocation of post-conversion 72(t) payment amounts.

Given this situation, while it isn’t logical, IRS could potentially challenge a partial Roth IRA conversion of a 72(t) IRA. If IRS were to prevail on this issue, as previously stated, future, as well as retroactive, 72(t) distributions would be assessed a 10% premature distribution penalty. IRS would also assess interest on any assessed penalties.

After consulting with Natalie Choate, a well-known attorney who specializes in estate planning for retirement benefits, I recommended to my clients that they consider doing a partial Roth IRA conversion of Mrs. R.’s 72(t) IRA in 2010, file a 2010 income tax extension application, and plan on recharacterizing, or undoing, Mrs. R.’s partial Roth IRA conversion by October 15, 2011, the extended due date of Mr. and Mrs. R.’s 2010 income tax returns, in the event that IRS doesn’t provide definitive guidance on partial Roth IRA conversions of 72(t) IRA’s by this date. (For an explanation of the recharacterization process, please see Recharacterization – Your Roth IRA Conversion Insurance Policy.)

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