If you're looking to save a bit on taxes this year with your IRA retirement contributions, you likely placed your funds into a traditional IRA, which gives you an immediate tax write-off.
But eventually when you withdraw that money, you will have to pay the piper, as you have deferred taxes on the account and will need to pay them when you withdraw the momey. In contrast, a Roth IRA demands taxation up front, but then the withdrawals in retirement years are tax-free.
With stocks suffering significant setbacks the past year -- the Dow Jones Industrial Average is off 9.6% the past year, the S&P 500 is off 9.0% and the Nasdaq Composite Index is off 8.6% -- some financial advisors say that, for many savers, now is an ideal time to shift from a traditional IRA to a Roth account.
"If you've already put 2015 funds into a traditional IRA, you can still get the benefit of the tax write-off," said Gil Charney of the Tax Institute at H&R Block. "But if the value of that investment goes down, then you would benefit by converting to a Roth." That's primarily because you pay taxes at the time you takeout the traditional IRA funds based on the amount of those funds at the time of conversion.
Traditional IRAs allow for contributions of up to $5,500 per year or up to $6,500 from those over age 50. When tax-time comes, you may deduct the entire amount of what you contributed to a traditional account from your income, incurring a significant savings on your tax bill.
However, traditional IRAs are taxable at the time of payouts, which can begin when you are 59.5 and are mandatory once you are 70.5. Because Uncle Sam wants his money, if you don't take the mandatory withdrawals in your 70s, you face a penalty of 50% of what the payout should have been, Charney said.
In comparison, Roth IRAs allow your funds to grow tax-free, with no income tax concerns when you withdraw the money. For those who want to keep their funds intact and live off of other sources of income in their retirement years, Roth accounts do not penalize those who decline payments. And they offer the additional benefit of allowing money to be transferred to heirs without taxation.
On the other hand, while more ideal in the long-term, Roth IRA contributions will cost you in today's taxes. Furthermore, when you make a conversion to a Roth, you will not be able to withdraw the money from the account for five years. So for those who need that income in the next five years, a conversion may not be ideal now, said Alisa Shin, senior wealth planning strategist with Vanguard Personal Advisor Services Group.
"As a general rule, if you are going to need the money in five years, you typically should not convert [to a Roth]," Shin said. "Because once you convert, you're not going to be able to take withdrawals out for five years."
Roth conversions also may not be ideal if you are planning to leave your estate to charity, because charities are exempt from taxation on donations, Shin says. So if you convert to a Roth, you would be paying an income tax on money that ultimately would not require a tax.
"Be strategic about your retirement accounts," Shin said. "Work with your financial advisors and make sure you understand what impact it will have on your tax return if you convert."
Along with considering how market conditions affect the taxation on their traditional IRA assets, investors should also consider their tax brackets when deciding whether to transfer to a Roth, said David Rae, vice president of client services for Trilogy Financial Services.
"You do have some flexibility in making these decisions," Rae said. "The optimum amount is generally that amount that would keep you in your existing tax bracket. That could be over multiple years as a longer-term plan to convert traditional to a Roth. You don't have to do it all at once."
Investors should also consider how they will pay for the taxes upon the conversion into a Roth, Rae says. Ideally, funds for the taxation should come from an outside income source to keep all the money in the IRA realm and therefore preserve the maximum taxation benefits.
"You don't want to take money out of the account to pay your taxes," Rae says. "Because you're limited on what you can put in .... Most people don't have a lot of burning room when it comes to saving for retirement."