Converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth

| January 31, 2017

Converting is relatively simple. You start by notifying your existing traditional IRA trustee or custodian that you want to convert all or part of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and the custodian/trustee will provide you with the necessary paperwork.

You can also open a new Roth IRA at a different financial institution, and then have the funds in your traditional IRA transferred directly to your new Roth IRA. The trustee/custodian of your new Roth IRA can give you the paperwork that you need to do this. If you prefer, you can instead contact the trustee/custodian of your traditional IRA, have the funds in your traditional IRA distributed to you, and then roll those funds over to your new Roth IRA within 60 days of the distribution. The income tax consequences are the same regardless of the method you choose.

Calculating The Conversion Tax

When you convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you’re taxed as if you received a distribution, but with one important difference–the 10% early distribution tax doesn’t apply, even if you’re under age 59½. However, the IRS may recapture this penalty tax if you make a nonqualified withdrawal from your Roth IRA within five years of your conversion.

If you’ve made only nondeductible (after-tax) contributions to your traditional IRA, then only the earnings, and not your own contributions, will be subject to tax at the time you convert the IRA to a Roth. But if you’ve made both deductible and nondeductible IRA contributions to your traditional IRA, and you don’t plan on converting the entire amount, things can get complicated.

That’s because under IRS rules, you can’t just convert the nondeductible contributions to a Roth and avoid paying tax at conversion. Instead, the amount you convert is deemed to consist of a pro rata portion of the taxable and nontaxable dollars in the IRA.

For example, assume that your traditional IRA contains $350,000 of taxable (deductible) contributions, $50,000 of nontaxable (nondeductible) contributions, and $100,000 of taxable earnings. You can’t convert only the $50,000 nondeductible (nontaxable) contributions to a Roth, and have a tax-free conversion. Instead, you’ll need to prorate the taxable and nontaxable portions of the account. So in the example above, 90% ($450,000/$500,000) of each distribution from the IRA (including any conversion) will be taxable, and 10% will be nontaxable.

You can’t escape this result by using separate IRAs. Under IRS rules, you must aggregate all of your traditional IRAs (including SEPs and SIMPLEs) when you calculate the taxable income resulting from a distribution from (or conversion of) any of the IRAs.

Some experts suggest that you can avoid the pro rata rule and make a tax-free conversion if you take a total distribution from all of your traditional IRAs, transfer the taxable dollars to an employer plan like a 401(k) (assuming the plan accepts rollovers), and then roll over (convert) the remaining balance (i.e., the nontaxable dollars) to a Roth IRA. The IRS has not yet officially ruled on this technique, so be sure to get professional advice before considering this.

Using Conversions To Make “Annual Contributions”

Unfortunately, TIPRA didn’t repeal the income limits that may prevent you from making annual contributions to your Roth IRA. But if your income exceeds these limits, and you want to make annual Roth contributions, there’s an easy workaround: you can make nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA, as long as you haven’t yet reached age 70½. You simply make your annual contribution first to a traditional IRA, and then convert that traditional IRA to a Roth. There are no limits to the number of Roth conversions you can make. (But again, you’ll need to aggregate all of your traditional IRAs–including SEPs and SIMPLEs–when you calculate the taxable portion of the conversion.) This is sometimes called a “back door” Roth IRA.

Securities and advisory services offered through LPL Financial, a Registered Investment Advisor, member FINRA/SIPC. The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual. Bush Wealth Management and LPL Financial are separate entities.

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