This blog post is republished with permission from Forbes.com
My previous post introduced the potential consequences of the SECURE Act, which is being promoted as an “enhancement” for IRA and retirement plan owners. This is because it includes provisions allowing some workers to make higher contributions to their workplace retirement plans. I think it is a stinking pig with a pretty bow, so I wanted to give retirement plan owners the good and bad news about it.
I am a fan of Roth IRAs because they allow you to have far more control over your finances in retirement than you might have otherwise had. You are not required to take distributions from your Roth IRA, but the good news is that they’re not taxable if you do take them. These tax benefits can be a critical factor for seniors, especially if you are suddenly faced with costly medical or long term care bills. Saving money in a Roth account can offer financial flexibility to many older Americans – and one good thing about the SECURE Act is that it can help you achieve that flexibility. Here’s how.
The Good News About The SECURE Act
Under the current law, you are not allowed to contribute to a Traditional IRA after age 70½. (You can contribute to a Roth IRA at any age as long as you have taxable compensation, but only if your income is below a certain amount.) The age limitation for making contributions to Traditional IRAs is bad for older workers – and that’s an important point because the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that about 19 percent of individuals between the ages of 70 and 74 are still in the workforce. The SECURE Act eliminates that cutoff and allows workers of any age to continue making contributions to both Traditional and Roth IRAs.
That same provision of the SECURE Act offers a hidden bonus – it means that it will also be easier for older high-income Americans to do “back-door” Roth IRA conversions for a longer period of time. The back-door Roth IRA conversion, currently blessed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, is a method of bypassing the income limitations for Roth IRA contributions. The current law prohibits contributions to a Roth IRA if your taxable income exceeds certain amounts. Those amounts vary depending on your filing status. But even if you are unable to take a tax deduction for your Traditional IRA contribution, you can still contribute to one because there are no income limitations. Why bother? Because, assuming you don’t have any other money in an IRA, you can immediately convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA by doing a back-door conversion. That’s a good thing because the earnings on the money you contributed can then grow tax-free instead of tax-deferred.
Here’s more good news. The current law requires Traditional IRA owners to start withdrawing from their accounts by April 1st of the year after they turn 70 ½. These Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) can be bad for retirees because the distributions are taxable. The increase in your taxable income can cause up to 85 percent of your Social Security benefits to be taxed and can also move you into a higher tax bracket. And once you begin to take RMDs, you are no longer allowed to make additional contributions to your account, even if you are still working. The SECURE Act increases the RMD age to 72, a change which will allow Traditional IRA owners to save more for their retirements.
There’s a hidden bonus in this change as well. Increasing the RMD age to 72 will allow retirees more time to make tax-effective Roth IRA conversions. What does that mean? Once you are required to take distributions from your Traditional IRA and your taxable income increases, you may find yourself in such a high tax bracket that it may not be favorable to make Roth IRA conversions at all.