Convert to a Roth IRA Before 2013 Tax Changes?

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If you have considered converting a traditional IRA to Roth IRA, now may be the perfect time considering the tax increases you're likely to face in 2013.

If you have considered converting a traditional IRA to Roth IRA, now may be the perfect time.

As you likely know by now, the Bush’s tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2012. Absent Congressional action, everyone will pay more taxes.

Additionally, President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) tax increases take effect in 2013. This includes a 3.8% Medicare tax on the lesser of net investment income (dividends, interest, rental income, capital gains, passive income) or the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over $250,000 (married filing jointly) or $200,000 (single filers). The ACA also includes a 0.9% increase in the employee’s portion of the Hospital Insurance Tax on total wages in excess of the $250,000 threshold for married filers and $200,000 threshold for single filers.

If you are close to either threshold, or seeking a way to accelerate taxable events into 2012 (while tax rates are lower), now may be the time to convert your traditional IRA into a Roth.

What’s the difference?

In both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, your money grows tax free while in the account. The main difference between the two is when you must pay taxes on the money put into the account.

With a traditional IRA, you pay no taxes on the funds you put in. Consequently, you are taxed when you withdraw money from the account. With a Roth, you are taxed when you put money in, but there is no tax on funds withdrawn from the account. Generally, Roth IRAs also offer a little more flexibility if you need to take money out earlier than expected.

Why now?

Generally, it is advantageous to defer tax liabilities for as long as possible, but considering the possible increases slated for 2013 now may be a good time to accelerate taxable events.

Taking a traditional IRA funded with pre-tax dollars and converting into a Roth triggers a taxable event. If you wait and convert in 2013, it will affect the determination of whether the Medicare tax applies to the IRA owner’s investment income. The converted IRA amount itself is not subject to the 3.8% tax as investment income. However, it is included in compiling the taxpayer’s MAGI. Therefore, depending on your circumstances, a Roth conversion in 2013 could increase the IRA owner’s MAGI over the specified $200,000/$250,000 thresholds, resulting in the application of the Medicare tax.

Converting now avoids this possibility. Further, assuming individual income tax rates rise, completing a Roth conversion before year-end could lock in lower tax rates on the converted amount, avoiding higher income taxes in the future.

Wait and see?

With so much uncertainty surrounding impending year-end tax changes, it is tough to plan. Why not just take the wait and see approach? We believe it is generally better to take a proactive approach to tax planning. If things change, you can effectively undo the conversion.

You can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth with the understanding that tax laws permit you to change your mind and retroactively reconvert the Roth back to a traditional IRA at any time prior the deadline for filing your income tax return (including extensions) for the year when conversion took place. This enables you to take action now and revise your plans later depending on what happens with the Bush tax cuts.

Advantages of a Roth IRA

The advantages and benefits of a Roth IRA over a traditional IRA may vary depending on your specific circumstances, but generally Roth IRAs offer the following:

• Distributions from a Roth are tax-free provided the distribution occurs at least five years after you (or your spouse) first fund the Roth and you reach the age of 59-and-a-half (or become disabled or pass away); or distribution is for a qualified, first-time, home purchase.

• Roth IRAs can also maximize tax-deferred growth by deferring required minimum distributions (RMDs). Unlike traditional IRAs, Roths do not have RMDs for the original owner or a spouse-beneficiary — so the Roth IRA assets can grow, untouched and income-tax free, during your lifetimes. Children or grandchildren who inherit Roths must take RMDs, but they can extend the distributions over the course of their life expectancies. This permits smaller distributions and greater assets to compound within the Roth, income-tax free.

• A conversion to a Roth removes the double income and estate tax hit on inherited IRAs. When the Roth passes to your designated heirs, an estate tax applies. However, Roth beneficiaries take their withdrawals income tax-free.

Cost benefit analysis

Obviously, any planning must be predicated upon your particular situation. Typically, the biggest cost of an IRA conversion is the acceleration of the taxable event, and the lost opportunity to earn income on the amount of tax paid.

As discussed above, tax deferral is usually the best approach — but given the current environment, accelerating recognition of income prior to the scheduled rate increases may be more beneficial. Also, to maximize the benefits derived from an IRA conversion, you should attempt to pay the tax with funds outside of the account.

To determine if a Roth conversion is best for you, consider the typical benefits against potential lost opportunity cost. Primary factors that generally determine whether conversion is advisable include:

Time that you intend the converted funds to remain in the account

The longer you can leave funds in a Roth, the greater the advantage. Conversion is less advantageous if you believe you will need the funds during your lifetime.

Applicable tax rates to distributions made to you and/or your beneficiaries if the IRA remains a traditional IRA

If you anticipate lower tax rates in the future when you intend to begin withdrawals, compared to the time of conversion — then the overall benefit of conversion will be less.

Earnings rates generated by the account investments

Lower earnings rates make conversion less advantageous.

Use of funds for tax payments

If you will need to use account funds to pay the tax resulting from the conversion, it will lessen the overall benefits of the conversion.

These are general considerations only. The only way to review the potential advantages of a Roth conversion is to consult your advisor. Reviewing your financial plan is the only way to see if a conversion makes sense for you.

Other considerations

If you decide to go through with a Roth conversion, make certain you factor the decision in with your current estate plans. Designating a trust as the beneficiary of a Roth IRA can provide asset protection for beneficiaries. Also, you will have to make certain all beneficiary designation forms are completed accurately.

Whatever happens at the end of 2012, there will be a tax increase in 2013. If you own a traditional IRA and are close to the Medicare thresholds, it may be advantageous to review whether a Roth conversion is right for you, and whether effecting the conversion in 2012 could increase the conversion benefits given the tax changes scheduled for 2013.

Carole C. Foos, CPA, is a tax consultant at the financial consulting firm OJM Group, where Jason Wainscott, JD, is the Compliance Office. They can be reached at 877-656-4362 or mandell@ojmgroup.com. For a free consultation to discuss your 2012 taxes and what you can do to reduce them, call David B. Mandell, JD, MBA, at (877) 656-4362. You can also call for a free (plus $10 S&H) copy of For Doctors Only: A Guide to Working Less and Building More. If you would like a shorter free E-book download of our “highlights” version, you can download it here.

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This article contains general information that is not suitable for everyone. The information contained herein should not be construed as personalized legal or tax advice. There is no guarantee that the views and opinions expressed in this article will be appropriate for your particular circumstances. Tax law changes frequently, accordingly information presented herein is subject to change without notice. You should seek professional tax and legal advice before implementing any strategy discussed herein.