The Roth Conversion Essentials

With the tax season in full swing and new rules in effect, brokerage and mutual fund companies report a flood of inquiries from investors wondering whether to convert traditional IRAs into tax-free Roths.

The new rules are simple, but the conversion decision is not. So here is the first of five columns that will examine the question over the next two weeks by looking at tax implications, benefits for heirs and how to undo a conversion if you change your mind, among other topics.

Though the tax season has helped fuel investors’ interest, a conversion done now, or anytime in 2010, will not affect the 2009 return due April 15. It could increase your tax bill for 2010. Or you would have the option of dividing the tax bill between 2011 and 2012, a deal only available for conversions done this year.

The other factor in investors’ new-found interest is a rule that took effect Jan. 1 allowing anyone with a traditional IRA, or TIRA, to convert it into a Roth. Previously, investors with modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $100,000 were not allowed to convert.

The first step is to understand the differences between the TIRA and Roth. With the TIRA, investors contribute pre- or after-tax dollars and avoid all annual income and capital gains taxes as the account grows. Upon withdrawal, all previously untaxed money such as investment gains and tax-deductible contributions are taxed at income-tax rates, ranging from 15% to 35% for most investors. Most investors also face a 10% penalty on withdrawals before age 59 ½, and withdrawals must begin after 70 ½.

Roths offer no upfront deduction on contributions but all contributions and investment gains can be withdrawn tax-free, generally after the account holder turns 59 ½. Investors are not required to begin withdrawals after 70 ½, allowing the accounts to grow longer and making Roths kinder to heirs.

In a conversion, the investor turns a TIRA into a Roth, getting all the Roth benefits such as tax-free treatment of withdrawals. But there’s a catch: income tax must be paid on any sums that had not been taxed before — investment gains and TIRA contributions on which tax deductions had been taken.

If you liked this article you might like

Why You May Not Want to Pay Cash, Own Your Home Free and Clear

Now You Can Get That Home Equity Loan in a Comfortable Hybrid

If Retirement Health Care Costs Look Scary, Try These Tactics

Why Buying Bonds With Negative Yield Isn’t as Weird as It Sounds

Investors Turning to Dividend-Paying Stocks See Benefits of Buybacks, But Must Heed Caveats