Tax-Free Growth With Roth IRA Conversions

With another free Roth IRA workshop coming up at the end of March, we thought it would be a good time to review why Roth IRA’s are so important – and why they are about to be even more important for wealthy seniors.

Practically all boomers can enjoy tax-free growth by taking advantage of Roth IRAs, Roth 401(k)s, and Roth IRA conversions. This article focuses on Roth IRA conversions. Two types of boomers can benefit. First are boomers who currently have less than $100,000 of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI.) The second type is most everyone else.

If your MAGI is in excess of $100,000, you will have to wait until 2010 when wealthy Americans will be granted a unique opportunity. For the first time, you will qualify for a Roth IRA conversion regardless of your income. Previously, taxpayers with a modified adjusted gross income of $100,000 (or more) were not permitted to make a Roth IRA conversion. The compelling reason to pay attention is that individual IRA owners who have modified adjusted gross incomes of more than $100,000 can enjoy a huge windfall by taking advantage of this conversion opportunity.

The Roth IRA Changes in a Nutshell

For tax years after 2009, the Tax Reconciliation Act permits all taxpayers to make Roth IRA conversions, regardless of income level. If you make the Roth IRA conversion in 2010 you will be given the option to pay all the taxes on the conversion with your 2010 return, or with the returns for the two subsequent years by claiming the conversion income on the 2011 and 2012 returns.

What Happens When You Make a Roth IRA Conversion?

When you make a Roth IRA conversion, you pay income tax on the amount you choose to convert. While my standard advice “to pay taxes later” still represents my strongest recommendation for successful long-term planning, I have always made a “philosophical exception” for Roth IRAs. With respect to Roth IRA conversions, the better advice for many individuals is pay taxes now. While each case will benefit from an individualized analysis on the merits of the conversion, the critical feature of the Roth is that, once the initial taxes are paid on the conversion, income taxes will never be due on the growth, capital gains, dividends, interest, etc. This will be particularly advantageous to high-income taxpayers.

How Will the Roth IRA Benefit the Owner in His or Her Lifetime?

How much better off will you be during your lifetime? Assume you are in the top tax bracket of 35% (earning well over $100,000), you have $1,000,000 in your IRA, and you have the funds to pay the income tax on the Roth IRA conversion from money outside of the IRA. If we assess the advantage of the $1,000,000 conversion, measured in purchasing power, you would be $517,298 better off in 20 years. However, in today’s dollars, as adjusted for 3% annual inflation, this advantage is $286,416. In 30 years you are $725,616 ahead. See the graph below:

What are the benefits to the Roth IRA Owner’s Family?

For the very high income family, the long-term benefit of a Roth IRA conversion is potentially phenomenal. An estimate is that a taxpayer’s family could benefit by as much as twice the amount converted.

Please consider this scenario for the beneficiary. If you die 20 years after you make the conversion and you opt to leave the Roth IRA to your 45-year-old child, who spends it modestly, how much better off will your child be? See the graph below:

By age 85, he is $11,742,363 better off in actual dollars or $1,993,067 in today’s dollars, as adjusted for 3% inflation. This advantage is about twice the original amount converted. Clearly the potential advantages are significant, and for wealthy individuals, the legacy advantage of the Roth is difficult to beat.

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