Roth IRA Conversions – Don’t Let the Tax Tail Wag the Dog – Part 5 of 6

Roth IRA Conversions – Don’t Let the Tax Tail Wag the Dog – Part 5 of 6

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Parts 3 and 4 of this series addressed the first two of three primary economic benefits associated with a Roth IRA conversion: (1) elimination of taxation on 100% of the growth of Roth IRA conversion assets and (2) elimination of exposure to required minimum distributions, with the first one being the most important and overriding reason in most cases for doing a conversion. This post discusses the third and final benefit – potential reduction in taxation of Social Security benefits.

Economic benefit #3 has intentionally been saved for last. Unlike the first two benefits which will occur provided there is an increase in the value of the Roth IRA after the conversion (benefit #1) and you live until at least age 70-1/2 and you haven’t depleted your traditional IRA (benefit #2), reduction in taxation of Social Security benefits is less certain. This is why this benefit is prefaced by the word, “potential.”

As we know from reading the two-part series, Say Goodbye to Up to 30% of Your Social Security Benefits that was published on January 10, 2011 and January 17, 2011, you can lose up to 30% of your Social Security benefits to federal income tax. Per the series, the amount of benefits subject to tax in a particular year is dependent upon four factors: (1) tax filing status, (2) total amount of Social Security benefits received, (3) adjusted gross income, and (4) tax-exempt income. Generally speaking, factor #3 is the most important one in determining the percentage of benefits that will be lost to federal income tax. The greater your adjusted gross income, or “AGI,” the more likely a larger portion of your Social Security will be eaten up by federal income tax.

Traditional IRA distributions are included in AGI. This includes both voluntary as well as required minimum distributions, or “RMD’s.” Roth IRA distributions, on the other hand, typically aren’t included in AGI since they generally aren’t taxable provided that certain rules are followed regarding the timing of distributions. Assuming that you’ve obeyed the rules, you will reduce your AGI in future years when you would have otherwise taken taxable traditional IRA distributions had you not done your Roth IRA conversion.

While a reduction in AGI doesn’t necessarily translate to a reduction in taxation of Social Security benefits, as illustrated in Exhibit 1 of Part 2 of Say Goodbye to Up to 30% of Your Social Security Benefits, there’s a very good chance that this will happen unless the total of your AGI, tax-exempt income, and 50% of your Social Security benefits exceeds several hundred thousand dollars. Per Part 1 of that series, the loss of 30% of Social Security benefits to taxation won’t occur unless you’re in the top 35% tax bracket. In 2011, the 35% bracket isn’t an issue until taxable income, i.e., AGI less itemized deductions and personal exemptions, exceeds $379,150.

Although reduction in taxation of Social Security benefits won’t occur in every situation, it should nonetheless be included as part of most Roth IRA conversion analyses.

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