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The Roth IRA

November 12, 2020

The Roth IRA presents a potentially attractive alternative to the traditional IRA. That's because a Roth IRA may allow you to avoid future taxation of any earnings on your retirement funds by making nondeductible contributions now.

Rules of the Roth IRA

Following is a summary of the rules for Roth IRAs:

Unlike the traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth IRA are nondeductible regardless of your income level or participation in a company-sponsored retirement plan.

Your total annual contributions to all IRAs are limited to $6,000 in 2019. Individuals who are at least 50 years old by the end of the year are also able to make so-called catch-up contributions to a Roth IRA. The allowable catch-up contribution is $1,000 per year but is not adjusted for inflation. The contribution limit begins to decline or "phase out" for single taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGIs) of $122,000 or more and for married couples filing jointly with MAGIs of $193,000 or more. Individuals with MAGIs of $137,000 or more ($203,000 for married couples filing jointly) are not eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA for that year. Married taxpayers filing separately are not allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA if they have MAGIs of $10,000 or more.

Contribution limits may increase in the years ahead. In the future, the annual contribution limit may be adjusted for inflation.

Your contributions to a Roth IRA may continue beyond age 70½. You are not required to start taking distributions from a Roth IRA at age 70½ as you are with a traditional IRA, and you can continue to contribute as long as you have earned income. When a Roth IRA owner dies, however, his or her heirs must adhere to the same minimum distribution rules that apply to traditional IRAs.

Qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax free. While your contributions to a Roth IRA are never tax deductible, your distributions may be tax free if you have owned the Roth IRA for at least five tax years AND:

  • You are at least 59½ years old; or
  • Your withdrawal of up to $10,000 (lifetime limit) is applied to a first-time home purchase; or
  • You die or become permanently disabled.

You may qualify for the "first-time home purchase" if you have not owned a home for at least two years before the date on the purchase contract or the date when construction started for a principal residence. You, your spouse, or a child or grandchild or an ancestor of either may qualify as the buyer.

The taxable portion of a nonqualified distribution may be subject to a 10% additional tax for early withdrawal. If you make withdrawals that do not meet the rules for a qualified distribution, you'll owe regular income taxes on the taxable portion of the withdrawal. You must also pay a 10% additional tax on the taxable portion of the withdrawal, unless an exception applies.

Early withdrawals are permitted for qualified education expenses. If you are under age 59½ but have held the Roth IRA for five tax years, you may withdraw funds early to pay for qualified education expenses for yourself or family members without incurring the 10% additional tax. You will have to pay income tax on the taxable portion of the distribution, however.

Retirement plan "rollovers" are permitted. If you are changing jobs or retiring, you can roll over funds from an employer retirement plan, such as a 401(k) account, directly to a Roth IRA. The rollover is treated as a conversion, with income taxes due on the taxable portion of the funds.

The Traditional IRA vs. the Roth IRA

When deciding whether a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is best for you, you'll want to compare the after-tax dollars that would be available to you under each option. This will depend on many factors, including your tax bracket, how many years you have until retirement, and when you wish to begin making withdrawals. For some people, a Roth IRA may result in more after-tax income during retirement because qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax free, while distributions from a traditional IRA will generally be taxed.

For those whose contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible and who are in a higher tax bracket today than they will be in during retirement, a traditional IRA may be a good alternative, depending upon their individual circumstances.

If you are not eligible to participate in a company-sponsored retirement plan, you can make deductible contributions to a traditional IRA regardless of your income level, up to $6,000 in 2019 (or $7,000 if you are at least 50 years old). Deductible contributions may be reduced or eliminated if the taxpayer (or spouse, if filing jointly) participates in a company-sponsored retirement plan and income exceeds certain levels.

The Traditional IRA

The traditional IRA may still provide an advantage over the Roth IRA to those who maximize its benefit. Here's how: You invest the tax savings from your IRA deduction in a traditional account each year and let that account grow along with your IRA. Assuming your tax rate drops in retirement, this could yield more of a tax-adjusted benefit than a Roth IRA.

Conversion of a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA

There are no income limits associated with the conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA -- anyone can convert, provided they pay the tax bill. Since any investment earnings in your regular IRA have not been taxed yet, the government will take its share at the time of the conversion. If you have made nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA, withdrawn earnings -- as well as any previously untaxed amounts -- will be taxed, but the amount of any nondeductible contributions will not. The conversion will not trigger the 10% additional tax usually imposed on early withdrawals.

Which Is Right for You?

If you have a traditional IRA and are considering converting to a Roth IRA, here are a few factors to consider:

  • A Roth IRA may be more attractive the further you are from retirement. Why? Because the longer your earnings can grow, the more potential income you may have that is never taxed. On the other hand, if you convert to a Roth IRA close to retirement, your investments may not have much time to compensate for the associated tax bill.
  • If your traditional IRA contributions are nondeductible, you may be better off with a Roth IRA. That's because the distributions of earnings from your traditional, nondeductible IRA will eventually be taxed. The qualified distributions from a Roth IRA will not.
  • Your current and future tax brackets will affect which IRA is best for you. For example, if you are currently in a high tax bracket and expect to be in a much lower tax bracket during retirement, a traditional IRA could be the best option. Why? Because you may be able to claim a deduction on your contributions now and then pay taxes on future distributions at the lower rate later.

As you can see, there is no easy answer to the question, "Which IRA is best for me?" As with any major financial decision, careful consultation with a tax professional is a good idea before you make your choice. In addition to helping you with calculations and projections, a tax professional will know what, if any, changes or clarifications have been made to the complex tax laws that apply to Roth IRAs. Remember, your retirement could last 20 years or more. How you live tomorrow could depend on the choices you make today.

The information contained herein is general in nature and is not meant as tax advice. Consult a tax professional as to how this information applies to your situation.

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