In 2020, a year when all income brackets benefited from lower tax rates, the stock market took a nosedive at the beginning of the pandemic. For investors sharp enough to see the opportunity, this was an ideal time to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.
When you conduct a Roth conversion, the assets are taxed at ordinary income tax rates in the year of the conversion. As such, the best time to do this is when your current income tax rate is low and when your IRA account balance loses money due to declining market performance. Once you convert the account to a Roth, those assets continue to grow tax-free and are no longer subject to taxes when withdrawn later.
If you believe those stocks will rebound, you can direct the traditional and new Roth IRA custodians to move the shares as they are, rather than selling them for cash. Or, if you are converting the entire account and choose to remain with the same brokerage, you can simply instruct the custodian to change the account type. This way you can keep the same investments, pay applicable taxes on the account balance at the time of the conversion, and then never have to pay taxes on future gains.
While the stock market did recover in 2020, many market analysts believe equities are currently overpriced and could experience another correction this year. On top of that, with Democrats now in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, many expect legislation that will increase income taxes, at least among wealthier households.
Therefore, in order to avoid higher taxes on a long-accumulated traditional IRA, 2021 might be a good year to conduct a Roth conversion. The key is to try to time that conversion with a market loss. By conducting a conversion before income taxes increase, you’ll pay a lower rate and all future earnings can grow tax-free and be distributed tax-free. Bear in mind, too, that a Roth does not mandate required minimum distributions at any age. The full account balance of a Roth has the opportunity to continue growing for the rest of the owner’s life.
A Roth conversion is not the best strategy for everyone. Consider the following scenarios that are not ideal for a conversion.
- An investor under age 59½ will be assessed a penalty on newly converted Roth funds withdrawn in less than five years, so this might not work for an early retiree who needs immediate income.
- If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, you should wait until then to pay taxes on distributions of your traditional IRA. Also, if you think you might relocate to a state with lower or no state income tax during retirement, not converting eliminates state taxes on that money.
- Watch out for a bump in income taxes on a Roth conversion. You might not want to convert if those assets put you in a higher tax bracket during the year of conversion.
- Also note that if you convert after age 65, higher income reported that year could increase premiums for Medicare Part B benefits, as well as taxes on Social Security benefits.
- If the non-spousal IRA beneficiary is likely to remain in a lower tax bracket than the owner, he might as well leave the assets in the traditional IRA. Otherwise, the owner will waste more of his estate’s assets to pay taxes on the conversion.
- If you don’t have available cash outside the traditional IRA to pay the taxes on the conversion, the money will come out of the account and substantially drop the value. Consider whether or not your investment timeline is long enough to make up for that loss.
- If your goal is to leave that IRA money to a charity, don’t bother to convert. Qualified charities are exempt from taxes on donations.
If you’re planning to leave a Roth IRA to your heirs, they also enjoy tax-free distributions as long as that Roth was opened and funded for at least five years before you pass away. This is another reason why it might be better to convert to a Roth IRA sooner rather than later.