Friday, April 16, 2010

Howard’s Inner Circle, No. 9: Not So Fast with a Roth Conversion

If it sounds too good to be true, l have learned to pause and reflect. That is just how I feel about conversions of traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs. For some time there has been extensive positive press coverage regarding the fact that in 2010 the income restrictions have been lifted for a conversion and the resulting taxes can be paid over two years. Many of the articles are written as if it is a forgone conclusion that the election makes sense. I think the dangers and reasons why it might not pay to make a conversion must be more fully explored.

The fact that the participant should have adequate additional assets (other than using retirement plan distributions) to pay the tax and how the conversion affects the current tax rate is often mentioned in passing. What specifically isn’t being adequately explored is the immediate impact on an individual’s current and future net worth.

People who are eager to convert as much as possible must understand the taxes due on the conversion and on liquating assets to pay the tax on conversion can be very substantial. It would take a good deal of time to recoup that expenditure and achieve again the same compounding. That nest egg will take a very substantial hit.

Equally important, I see very few detailed projections using the comparisons of the tax impact of making or not making the conversion. Also missing are state tax implications which might include penalties for early distribution if the state doesn’t follow the federal rules on conversion, and the difference if the individual moves to another state. Assumptions also must be made as too whether there will be significant future changes to the income tax rules including the possibility of an excise tax being imposed on Roths of certain values.

Other major considerations are when the money might be needed, avoiding required minimum distributions, the ability to make controlled withdrawals at lower tax rates, as well as what happens if money is withdrawn within five years. The uncertain estate tax ramifications and estate planning implications especially as to possible distributions to heirs and charities also come into play. One article I read raised an interesting point as to whether a conversion to a Roth would more greatly expose the underlying assets if there is a subsequent divorce.

Also not sufficiently addressed is the mindset of the individual considering whether to make a conversion or not. Will they remain comfortable with the conversion if after they pay the taxes, the investment in the Roth goes down substantially or if economic adversity requires tapping into a Roth? How will that participant view the advisor who helped the participant make the Roth conversion? Although a conversion can be undone, the option is available for a very limited amount of time.

Assuming the decision is made that a Roth conversion pays particular care must be taken. For example, if institutions will be changed, make sure there is no tax withholding from the account when the transfer is done. Also it should be reviewed whether nondeductible IRA contributions were made.

Finally, an advisor should ensure that the participant fully understands and acknowledges all the possible ramifications of a conversion as the impact is substantial, immediate, and long lasting. Although the possible future benefits could greatly exceed the costs, the decision is a gamble, and as such, it should be a fully educated one.
© 2010
The above is from the ninth issue of the newsletter, Howard’s Inner Circle, which periodically appears on the blog, “Instigator” at It may be reproduced in full if that fact is stated and Howard Wolosky is credited as the author.

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