Note: This article appeared in The Street on April 15, 2019.
By James R. Ferguson III
There are three major components (and potentially many more) that do not get the attention they often need when contemplating and executing Roth IRA conversions. Like any great strategy, the execution will matter very much in the net result and the combination of the specific situation for each individual and household can vary greatly. The nuances will become important to ensure you use each element in conjunction with the others.
The three most common that are overlooked are laid out here. These must be considered as variables that will impact the decision on how much and if a Roth conversion makes sense for you.
1. Medicare surcharge for adjusted gross income, or AGI, above a various threshold based on income tax brackets and filing status. This can impact your Social Security income amount that is subject to taxation as well.
2. Required minimum distributions, or RMDs, that are triggered at age 70½ requiring the balance in qualified or pre-tax deferred accounts, i.e. 401(k), 403(b), traditional IRAs, be distributed. The distribution amount starts at 3.65% of the account balance the first year and increases over time based on life expectancy. Income needs and taxable income will impact the overall tax you pay.
3. Which specific investments to choose to convert from pre-tax accounts alongside the updated rules, including no “re-characterizations.” This again follows the theme that each of these factors in the conversion of pre-tax money to a Roth IRA are related and are not done in a vacuum.
Roth IRA conversions are a potential tool or strategy that is widely used for many individuals and households to help gain more control over future taxation, estate planning, and income needs. Many articles cover just enough to get some do-it-yourselfers in trouble.
The overarching concept is fairly simple: Take pre-tax, tax-deferred assets or dollars and convert them into a Roth IRA. This has a number of benefits. The growth in a Roth IRA is tax deferred and the withdrawal is tax free, as long as the funds have been in the Roth for at least five years. Additionally, the Roth IRA does not have required minimum distributions and can also be passed to beneficiaries with the Roth IRA being removed from the estate for estate tax purposes. The list can go on and on.
The Roth IRA benefits, like anything that is a great potential opportunity, has many nuances including your age, income level, income needs, taxable income, modified adjusted gross income (MAGI), Medicare surcharge, and estate planning.
To over-simplify these dynamic components, which impact whether this particular strategy makes good sense for an individual, is not prudent.
Let’s look more closely at the three key elements noted above.
Your adjusted gross income or AGI, above certain thresholds, can impact what you pay for Medicare premiums as well as your Social Security income amount that is subject to taxation.
Based on your income, Medicare premiums can increase up to $300 per month. Additionally, your Social Security income can be subject to taxation at varying levels ranging from not being included to 85% of your Social Security benefits being taxable, depending on your other income. This can play a major role in how much you decide to convert into a Roth IRA from a pre-tax account in a given tax year.
Required Minimum Distributions
Required minimum distributions, or RMDs, are triggered at age 70½ on the balance in “qualified” or pre-tax deferred accounts, i.e. 401(k), 403(b), traditional IRAs, and must be distributed each year. The required percentage for the RMD begins at 3.65% of all qualified accounts and trends upward towards 8.77% at age 90 and higher from there.
On this IRS page on RMDs, you’ll find the figures you can use to calculate your RMD liability based on age and the balance of accounts that are qualified as of Dec. 31 of the year prior. You can see how these numbers increase over time.
In considering a Roth IRA conversion, one reason at the top of the list for this action is the amount of income you are required to take in RMDs. Here’s an example: If you have $1 million in a traditional IRA, at age 70½ you will be required, before the next April at the latest, to take out $36,500 for that year.
If you are also converting pre-tax money to a Roth IRA during this time you are now growing your tax owed for that year, and, you could be impacting the taxable portion of your Social Security income and the amount of your Medicare premiums.
Some feel they should defer the taxes as long as possible, missing the opportunity to reposition assets from qualified accounts which require RMDs to a Roth IRA which does not. Time is always of the essence, but the consideration of time for compounding of growth (and the fiveyear clock for Roth conversion principal to meet one of the triggers to be excluded from taxation of growth), tax brackets and when to execute the Roth conversion is a highly specific and dynamic decision. While they may delay the tax payment, it’s likely that the amount of tax paid is increased as the qualified account continues to grow over time.
Can you see now how each part of this strategy hinges and impacts another?
Which Specific Investments to Convert
It’s important to carefully choose which specific investments and the dollar amounts to convert from pre-tax accounts in consideration of the updated rules including no re-characterizations.
This is a tricky one, much more so than a couple years back. Effectively, there are no longer “mulligans” or “do-overs” once you convert assets from pre-tax qualified accounts to a Roth IRA. This matters when deciding to execute the Roth conversion because recent rule changes removed the ability to convert a portion of pre-tax money to a Roth IRA and then decide later within the same tax year that you wanted to do that differently, either using less money, more money, or undoing it all together.
Now, you have to know when you execute and move funds in the conversion that you cannot change the amount or asset converted, or cancel the transaction.
We have seen many individuals choose to convert assets that might have made more sense to not convert. An example (assuming the custodian allows you to choose the individual fund or security to convert): You have an ETF that was in (SPY) (tracks S&P 500) and an ETF in (BIL) (tracks 1- to 3-month U.S. Treasury bills), and let’s assume 50% of your traditional IRA is in each fund.
(Yes, this an oversimplified example, but get this point and you might save yourself some pain.)
Let’s say you are converting these funds from your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in December 2018. Which would you choose? Many will say the BIL ETF because it’s less volatile, doesn’t fluctuate as much. But, here is the thing – if you convert the SPY ETF over (assume the value is $100,000 in mid-December, down roughly 11-12% for the month) you pay tax on the amount you converted of $100,000, not the value that the asset could, should, or will be worth.
This can be a massive boost to your returns in the Roth IRA over the long-term by converting assets with depressed/lower or lesser values. In our example, you converted $100,000 worth of assets which just a few weeks earlier had a value of $111,000, and the potential to return to that amount or more. But, you are responsible for only the tax liability of $100,000, the value of the asset on the day you converted it to a Roth IRA.
Please do not misconstrue this over-simplified example, this can work both ways. But you have to assume you are converting to a Roth IRA for the long term and this ties directly to how much, where, when, and what assets you convert. Once converted, you cannot “re-characterize” or undo what’s been converted. Choose wisely.
With these three commonly overlooked considerations, please consult your tax adviser/CPA/tax attorney and your financial planner, along with the information on the IRS, Social Security and Medicare web sites. We’ve only touched the surface of the multitude of considerations here. Your tax and financial professionals can advise you on your specific situation each year.
About the author: James Ferguson is co-founder and managing partner at Roan Capital Partners, a NAPFA registered advisory firm in Tennessee. He is a Certified Financial Planner and focuses on techniques to maximize the ability to generate income for clients with consideration for taxes, estate planning, and risk management. He has worked with hundreds of clients to execute financial plans and conversion strategies over the last decade and a half.
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