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Converting To A Roth? Don’t Fall Into These Traps


With talks of major long-term changes to retirement planning as part of the potential tax reform legislation, it’s a great time to start thinking about Roth IRA conversions.

As 2021 comes to a close, you might be considering Roth conversions as part of your end-of-year planning, especially in light of the historic low tax rates and looming tax rate hikes. 

If you’re considering Roth conversions, keep in mind that you need to avoid common Roth conversion traps, including being unaware of aggregation rules, the five-year rules and converting yourself into higher tax rates. 

To cover some basics, while working, you can contribute to Roth IRAs with after-tax dollars and get tax-free withdrawals if you meet certain conditions. You can also get money into a Roth IRA via a conversion.

A Roth conversion would take money you have in a traditional IRA or retirement account – like a 401(k) – and convert it to a Roth IRA. When you convert tax-deferred money from the traditional IRA to the Roth IRA, you’d pay taxes on the amount converted as if it were taxable ordinary income. The taxable portion converted would be considered income for the tax year in which the conversion occurred. 

When considering a Roth conversion for 2021, also keep in mind how a proposed tax bill unveiled by the House Ways and Means Committee in mid-September might impact your plans. For example, the bill proposes that Roth conversions would not be allowed for single filers who make $400,000 or more, and those married filing jointly who make $450,000 or more, beginning on Dec. 31, 2031. While that’s a decade away, this type of income-based limitation on Roth conversions could come back into fold at some point.

While anyone of any income level can do a conversion today, we’ve had income-based limitations on Roth conversions in the past, and we could see them again soon.

The bill as it stands isn’t law yet and there is a lot still to be negotiated, but it’s always wise to keep up to date on how this legislation could impact your planning. 

Don’t Convert Yourself Into Higher Taxes Unknowingly

One of the real benefits of a Roth conversion is to pay taxes in years when your taxes might be lower than they’ll be when you’d otherwise take the money out of the traditional IRA. For example, if your effective tax rate is 20% today, and you expect your effective tax rate to be 25% in the future when you’d need the money from the IRA, you could convert money at a lower tax rate today.

Additionally, Roth conversions can provide other benefits over a traditional IRA. Because Roth IRAs are not subject to required minimum distributions at age 72 for the owner of the account, they can help provide tax diversification, and they also have the potential for tax-free growth, which can be beneficial for high-growth assets.

When considering Roth conversions, you want to understand how the potential of increased taxes this year might impact your future financial picture. For many people, doing what’s sometimes referred to as “bracket bumping” conversions can make sense. This tactic tries to keep converted dollars within your current tax bracket so that a conversion doesn’t push any of your money into a higher tax bracket. It can also be important to look at the full tax implications, like potentially phasing out of tax deductions or other income-based benefits by converting too much money in one single year. 

When doing your planning, you want to keep this in mind and try to not convert yourself into higher taxes. This is often why people wait until the end of the year before they engage in Roth conversions as they have a better understanding of their full income for the year. 

Aggregation Rules 

If you decide to engage in a Roth conversion, also be aware of certain aggregation rules that could cause a surprise tax headache or bill. Many people use a strategy today called the backdoor Roth, where they contribute after-tax money to a traditional IRA and then convert it to a Roth IRA the same year. The ability to directly contribute to a Roth IRA is limited if you make too much money, whereas after-tax contributions to a traditional IRA are not limited. There are also no income-based limits on conversions. Additionally, since the money was contributed after-tax into an IRA, it’s not taxable upon the conversion. 

So if you contribute $5,000 after-tax dollars to a traditional IRA in 2021 and then convert it a few days later, the full $5,000 is treated as non-taxable conversion. At this point, you would owe no taxes on that conversion if that was the full amount of IRA assets you had. 

The backdoor Roth works well when an individual doesn’t have any other tax-deferred money in any other IRA – including traditional, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs. However, if you have other assets that are tax deferred in that IRA or another, then you could run into a potential tax blunder if you aren’t careful. When you convert an IRA to a Roth IRA, you’re converting a proportional share of the conversion amount as non-deductible and deductible contributions across all of your IRAs. So, in essence, you need to account for all of your IRA assets when doing a conversion to make sure you’re paying the right amount of taxes. 

Let’s look at an example of a person who puts a non-deductible contribution of $5,000 into a new IRA and then converts it to a Roth IRA. This person also has a $50,000 tax-deferred IRA and another IRA worth $445,000. This totals $500,000 in all RIAs, so this person’s non-deductible percentage is 1%, or $5,000/$500,000. 

So then, when this person converts that $5,000 non-deductible IRA, it’s as if they’re doing a proportional conversion across all IRAs and this means 99% of that conversion is tax-deferred money and only 1% is after-tax money. 

In essence, this person will end up paying taxes on most of that conversion if they don’t take into account the aggregation rules that apply to all IRAs and attempt a backdoor Roth. So if you thought you were just converting the $5,000 after-tax dollars, you’d be in for a bit of a shock when tax time comes. Additionally, you cannot convert required minimum distributions (RMDs) to a Roth IRA. As such, if you want to do a Roth conversion after age 72, make sure you take out all your RMDs from that IRA before you do a conversion. 

The Five-Year Rules

Two five-year rules that apply to Roth IRAs can impact your conversion strategies. First, distributions from taxable retirement accounts like an IRA or 401(k) can be subject to an early withdrawal penalty tax of 10%. If you pull out money from a Roth IRA that you converted from a traditional IRA within five years of a conversion and you don’t have an exception against the early withdrawal penalty tax rule – like reaching age 59½ – you could be subject to a 10% penalty tax on certain portions of it. The reason is simple: You otherwise would have been subject to the penalty tax if you took the money from a traditional IRA, so you don’t exempt yourself from the penalty tax just by converting it. 

The second five-year rule addresses tax-free investment gains in the Roth IRA. To get a distribution from IRA investment gains tax-free, you have to have a Roth IRA open for five years and have a triggering event, such as being 59½, the account owner dies or becomes disabled or you are a first-time homebuyer.  

If you start a Roth IRA with a conversion and earn a lot of investment gains and then decide to empty the account within five years of setting up your first Roth IRA, you will not owe ordinary income taxes on the converted money because you already paid those in the conversion. However, you may owe taxes on those investment gains because you did not meet the five-year rule to have a Roth IRA open. 

While I do foresee there will be higher taxes in the future, when I joined the profession 15 years ago, I remember people telling me higher taxes are coming. Fast forward to today, and we’re sitting in a lower tax-rate environment than we were then. 

We can’t predict the future, but your financial professional can evaluate your current situation and figure out if a Roth conversion is a smart course of action, given your circumstances.

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