Retirement savers who convert pre-tax retirement accounts such as IRAs to after-tax Roth IRAs after reaching age 60 can keep growing funds tax-free and then make withdrawals in retirement without paying taxes. They avoid early withdrawal penalties and also don’t have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs), which can hike their post-retirement taxes. On the downside, they’ll have to pay a hefty tax bill when they convert, and then wait five years to make tax-free withdrawals. A financial advisor can provide valuable insight and guidance as you consider what to do with your IRA.
Roth IRA Conversion Basics
The difference between a Roth IRA and other types of IRAs is that the Roth account is funded with after-tax dollars. That means you pay taxes on funds before contributing them to the Roth, and you can’t deduct contributions from your taxable income. On the plus side, the money in the Roth grows tax-free and you can withdraw funds after you retire without paying taxes.
You can convert funds in pre-tax IRA accounts to a Roth IRA. This includes traditional IRAs, SEP IRAs and Simple IRAs.
When you convert pre-tax money in a regular IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to pay taxes on it at your current rate. This can result in a big tax bill for the year when you do a Roth conversion. The amount of the conversion is treated at regular income, which can bump you into a higher tax bracket.
A Roth IRA conversion can be worth it for a couple of reasons. First, it can get around the income caps that limit Roth conversions for higher-income taxpayers. Most taxpayers can contribute up to $6,000 to a Roth in 2021. But contribution limits are lower for higher-income taxpayers and, after a point, no Roth contributions are allowed at all.
For instance, in 2021 for married taxpayers filing jointly, allowable Roth contributions start being phased out at modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) levels of $198,000. Above $208,000 in MAGI, taxpayers can’t make Roth contributions.
However, there are no limits on conversions. A taxpayer with a pre-tax IRA can convert any amount of funds in a year to a Roth IRA.
Roth IRAs also are exempt from required minimum distributions (RMDs). These mandatory withdrawals from retirement accounts begin at age 72 and can create a tax burden on affluent retirees. But Roth owners don’t have to make RMDs for as long as they live. This makes Roth IRAs particularly useful for leaving inheritances.
Keep in mind that where you plan to retire is another factor to consider when it comes to Roth IRA conversions. If you anticipate relocating post-retirement to a state with high income taxes, a conversion likely makes more sense than if you are retiring to a state with low or no state income tax.
Benefits of Conversion After 60
Roth IRAs are popular with younger savers who anticipate being in higher tax brackets later in their working lives. However, they can also be useful for taxpayers over age 60. One reason is that taxpayers in their 60s may be earning less than in their peak years, so the income tax bite of a Roth IRA conversion is smaller.
For those with substantial retirement assets and who anticipate receiving pension benefits in addition to Social Security, the RMDs of a regular IRA can also put them in a higher tax bracket post-retirement. So converting to a Roth IRA now can, at the cost of paying some taxes today, reduce the post-retirement tax burden.
Drawbacks to Conversion After 60
Having to pay a large chunk of taxes today is the big disincentive to Roth conversion. Another potential drawback is that Roth accounts have to be open for five years to avoid paying taxes on withdrawals. After age 59.5, withdrawals aren’t subject to a 10% penalty that can be levied on early withdrawals. But the income taxes are still due even for those over 60.
There is a way around this. Roth IRA owners can avoid paying taxes on withdrawals if they wait five years after the conversion before withdrawing the converted funds. The same applies to any earnings on converted funds, except that in addition to having to pay taxes when withdrawing earnings before five years, Roth IRA owners also owe a penalty of 10% of the earnings they withdraw.
Roth IRA conversions aren’t recommended for all savers. For instance, many retirees will have lower incomes than when they were working. For them, it’s likely better to use a regular IRA and pay taxes when withdrawing funds, Similarly, Roth IRA conversions may not make much sense if a taxpayer intends to leave assets in a regular IRA to a charity.
Finally, the process of converting a regular IRA to a Roth IRA can’t be undone. A taxpayer who is not certain post-retirement income taxes will be lower than they are today might want to think twice about a conversion.
For taxpayers who anticipate a higher tax rate post-retirement, converting a regular IRA to a Roth IRA after age 60 can help to lower their total tax burden over time. Roth IRA conversions allow earnings to grow tax-free and avoid the need to make required withdrawals that increase post-retirement tax costs. Roth IRA conversions come at the cost of having to pay taxes on converted funds now rather than later, however. Also, funds converted after age 60 have to be left in the account for five years before they can be withdrawn tax-free.
Tips on Retirement
Deciding whether or not to convert regular IRA assets to a Roth IRA calls for careful evaluation of your financial and tax situation. That’s where a financial advisor can be invaluable. Finding a qualified financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three financial advisors in your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
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