Beneficial 2010 IRA-To-Roth IRA Conversion Rules

This year is the first in which taxpayers may convert funds in regular IRAs (as well as qualified plan funds) to Roth IRAs regardless of their income level. Taxpayers may convert before year-end and wait until Apr. 18, 2011, the due date of their 2010 return, to determine their best tax result for the conversion.

Amounts from a SEP-IRA or a SIMPLE IRA also may be converted to a Roth IRA, but a conversion from a SIMPLE IRA may be made only after the 2-year period beginning on the date on which the taxpayer first participated in any SIMPLE IRA maintained by the taxpayer’s employer. Distributions from a qualified plan also may be rolled over to a Roth IRA.

A conversion from a regular IRA to a Roth IRA generally is subject to tax as if it were distributed from the traditional IRA and not re-contributed to another IRA, but isn’t subject to the 10% premature distribution tax.

Why make a IRA-to-Roth IRA conversion? Roth IRAs have two major advantages over regular IRAs:

  • Distributions from regular IRAs are taxed as ordinary income (except to the extent they represent non-deductible contributions). Roth IRA distributions are tax-free if they are “qualified distributions,” that is, if they are made (1) after the 5-tax-year period that begins with the first tax year for which the taxpayer made a contribution to a Roth IRA, and (2) when the account owner is 59 1/2 years of age or older, or on account of death, disability, or the purchase of a home by a qualified first-time homebuyer (limited to $10,000).
  • Regular IRAs are subject to the lifetime required minimum distribution (RMD) rules that generally require minimum annual distributions to be made commencing in the year following the year in which the IRA owner attains age 70 1/2. Roth IRAs are not subject to the lifetime RMD rules that apply to regular IRAs (as well as individual account qualified plans).

A similar comparison could be made between distributions from qualified retirement plans and Roth IRAs.

There are other tax advantages to an IRA to Roth Conversion.  Because distributions from Roth IRAs are tax-free (if they are qualified distributions), they:

  • May keep a taxpayer from being taxed in a higher tax bracket that would otherwise apply if he were withdrawing taxable distributions;
  • Do not enter into the calculation of tax owed on Social Security payments;
  • Have no effect on deductions based on Adjusted Gross Income;
  • Beneficiaries of Roth IRA accounts also can make tax-free withdrawals from such accounts (they are, however, subject to the same annual post-death minimum distribution rules that apply to beneficiaries of regular IRAs).

Who should make IRA-to-Roth IRA conversions? While each individual’s situation is different, the consensus seems to be that an IRA to Roth conversion should be considered by taxpayers who:

  • Have a number of years to go before retirement (and are therefore able to recoup the dollars that are lost to taxes on account of the conversion);
  • Anticipate being taxed in a higher bracket in the future than they are now; and
  • Can pay the tax on the conversion from non-retirement-account assets (otherwise, there will be a smaller buildup of tax-free earnings in the depleted retirement account).

A unique income inclusion rule applies for IRA-to-Roth-IRA conversions occurring in 2010. Unless a taxpayer elects otherwise, none of the gross income from the conversion is included in income in 2010; half of the income resulting from the conversion will be includible in gross income in 2011 and the other half in 2012. Taxpayers who elect to include all of the 2010 rollover income on their 2010 return cannot change the election after the due date of that return.

A major unknown in the decision as to whether to convert an IRA to a Roth IRA is the tax-rate structure after 2010. Congress may fail to extend current tax brackets so that after 2010 the tax brackets above the 15% bracket will revert to their pre-2001 levels. In such an event, the top four brackets will be 39.6%, 36%, 31%, and 28%, instead of the current top four brackets of 35%, 33%, 28%, and 25%. Other possible scenarios include Congress’s allowing the current tax rate structure to stay in effect for everyone, possibly for a year or two, or increasing taxes rates for high income individuals only.

Those taxpayers who find that their rates won’t go up in the near future can defer the tax due on their 2010 conversion to Roth IRA, and pay the bill ratably when they file their 2011 return in 2012, and when they file their 2012 return in 2013. High income taxpayers who find that their tax rates will go up after this year can elect out of the deferral option and pay the tax on their Roth IRA conversion when they file their 2010 returns. Of course before doing so, such taxpayers will need to consider the overall impact of the election-out on their tax bills, and the time value of money.

This article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended as tax advice.  No action should be taken on its content without first consulting with a tax advisor.