Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Converting an IRA into a Roth? How's Your Crystal Ball?

Ron Lieber of the New York Times recently published an article discussing the unpredictable future of Roth IRAs. At one point, Lieber even proposes the possibility of taxes on withdrawals from Roth IRAs. Lieber predicts that “at the most extreme end, the federal government might try to tax the earnings on a Roth after all, say through the capital gains tax, which is currently at 15 percent for long-term gains but could go up in the next few years.”

You’ll be hearing a lot in the next six months about Roth Individual Retirement Accounts — but not as much as you should about a long-term threat that hangs over them.

Starting Jan. 1, you’ll be able to take a regular IRA, say, one that you have in a brokerage account after having rolled an old 401(k) into it, and turn it into a Roth. You’ll be able to do this no matter how much money you make, though you’ll have to pay income taxes at your current rate on whatever you move. Currently, you can’t make the conversion at all if your household has more than $100,000 in modified adjusted gross income. (That’s a technical Internal Revenue Service term, which it defines in Publication 590, available on its Web site).

Why would you want to make such a swap? Because you think you or your heirs could end up with more money over the long haul by investing in a Roth instead of a regular IRA.

With a Roth IRA, you pay no taxes on your earnings in most instances when you take money out; distributions from regular IRA’s are taxable the same way that income is, though the basic IRA does offer a tax deduction when you first deposit money into the account. The Roth offers no such deduction when you contribute money to it.

So if you think your tax rate will be higher during retirement than it is now, say if you’re fairly young for instance, making the conversion early in 2010 looks sensible.

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