Roth IRA Conversion Insights – Part 1 of 2

Roth IRA Conversion Insights – Part 1 of 2

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Last week’s post completed a six-part series discussing the three primary benefits to be derived from a Roth IRA conversion: (1) elimination of taxation on 100% of the growth of Roth IRA conversion assets, (2) elimination of exposure to required minimum distributions on traditional IRA funds converted to a Roth IRA, and (3) potential reduction in taxation of Social Security benefits.

Part 6, the finale of the series worked through two comprehensive scenarios – one with no Roth IRA conversion and a second with a Roth IRA conversion – to determine which one was projected to result in more total investment assets throughout the life of the scenario. As emphasized in the post, the results of the two scenarios cannot be generalized and used as the basis for determining whether a Roth IRA conversion is appropriate in a particular situation. Furthermore, a detailed analysis needs to be prepared by a retirement income planner for every potential Roth IRA conversion situation.

Having said this, there are several insights to be gained from analyzing the two scenarios that can be applied to any potential Roth IRA conversion analysis. This post will discuss the first three with next week’s post addressing three others.

Actual Results are Likely to be Different Than Projected Results

By far, the most important insight to keep in mind going into any Roth IRA conversion analysis is that actual results are likely to be different than projected results. Without listing them individually, the multitude of assumptions that must be considered and the interaction between them is the reason for this. Contributing to the complexity and uncertainty is the lengthy timeframe that needs to be considered in most situations with the associated potential for multiple changes in the realization of each assumption. In addition, the timeframe needs to include spouses’ and other potential beneficiaries’ lifetimes when applicable.

Multi-Year Income Tax Planning is Critical

When I read, or attend presentations, about Roth IRA conversions, the importance of marginal income tax rates in the year(s) of conversion(s) and the years of distribution from traditional IRA accounts is often emphasized as one of the key factors in a Roth IRA conversion analysis. When I entered the tax profession in 1980 and the top marginal federal income tax rate was 70%, did I know that by 1987, the top rate would be slashed to 38.5% and would stay within three percentage points of this rate for at least the next 25 years with today’s top rate of 35% scheduled to remain in effect through 2012? While a strong argument can be made that a tax increase is inevitable given our huge federal budget deficit, no one knows for certain when this will occur or what future tax rates will be.

It’s not just about tax rates. Comprehensive multi-year income tax planning on both the “front-end” and “back-end” is critical to the success of any Roth IRA conversion analysis. Keeping in mind that a Roth IRA conversion generally shouldn’t be a one-year event, “front-end” planning should include preparation of multi-year income tax projections to determine how much of one’s contributory IRA should be converted and in which years. On the “back-end,” multi-year ongoing projections need to analyze the impact of projected required and discretionary distributions from contributory and Roth IRA accounts as well as nonqualified investment accounts in meeting one’s projected financial needs. Each “back-end” projection should include an analysis of taxable Social Security benefits. Finally, both “front-end” and “back-end” income tax projections need to consider all projected sources of income, losses, and deductions in each year.

Growth of Roth IRA Conversion Assets is Dependent on Roth IRA Conversion Timing

The number one benefit to be derived from a Roth IRA conversion, i.e., elimination of taxation on 100% of the growth of Roth IRA conversion assets, is dependent upon the timing of a Roth IRA conversion relative to stock market valuation assuming that a sizeable portion of one’s Roth IRA conversion portfolio is equity-based. In order to realize this benefit, by definition, there needs to be an increase in the value of one’s Roth IRA from the date(s) of conversion(s) to the future comparison date.

With the Dow Jones Industrial Average increasing by approximately 1,000 points, or 8%, in the past month to finish at 12,811 on Friday combined with a 100% increase, or doubling, from its close of 6,440 on March 9, 1999 a little over two years ago, the determination of the timing of a Roth IRA conversion is more difficult than it was last year at this time. Recharacterization, (see the April 19, 2010 post, Recharacterization – Your Roth IRA Conversion Insurance Policy) is a strategy that’s available for retroactively undoing a Roth IRA conversion that was done prior to a market decline if it’s implemented during a specified limited time period following a conversion.

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