Military Finances 101: What You Need to Know About Roth ConversionsManaging Your Finances
When opening a retirement savings account, you’re typically presented with the option of choosing between a traditional or Roth IRA. While you may have stuck with a traditional IRA for the initial tax savings, it’s possible you could change your mind and opt for tax-free retirement income instead. Making this switch is called a Roth conversion. Should you consider taking advantage of this opportunity, or are you better off sticking to your current savings strategy? We’re discussing what you need to know below.
What Is a Roth Conversion?
A Roth conversion refers to the act of converting a traditional IRA account into a Roth IRA account. A traditional IRA account normally is created using pre-tax dollars, meaning the distributions you take from a traditional IRA account in retirement is taxable income. In the case of many retired senior military officers and NCOS, there be after-tax contributions in a Traditional IRA. This is know as "basis". A Roth IRA is created using after-tax dollars, meaning the distributions you take from a Roth IRA account in retirement is tax-free.
Additionally, a Roth IRA can be an appealing option for some because it does not include a required minimum distribution age. This means that you can continue to save and grow tax-free dollars for the remainder of your life.
Considerations to Make Before Doing a Roth Conversion
While a Roth conversion could be a great option for some, it could be a costly mistake for others. That’s why we’ve outlined four important considerations to make before converting your traditional IRA into a Roth account.
Consideration #1: Your Timeline to Retirement
If you’re retiring within the next few years, you may want to forego a Roth conversion. Why? Because the money you convert into a Roth IRA must stay there for a five-year holding period. If withdraws are made before the five years is up, you could be hit with a 10 percent penalty and/or additional income taxes. You also might be in a lower tax bracket in a year or two.
Consideration #2: Tax Obligations
When considering a Roth conversion, you simply can’t ignore the tax implications associated with this move. While your aim may be tax-free income in retirement, you will have to pay taxes on that income at some point. You need to be prepared to pay the taxes on this additional income, which could very well push you up into a higher tax bracket. While it’s possible to cover the difference using a portion of the distribution itself, this is typically not advised for two reasons: you’d be robbing your future retirement of income and you may be subject to a 10 percent penalty for taking the funds. Remember, too, that you don't have to convert the entire amount in one year. If a full conversion will put you into a higher bracket, break the conversion up over a period of two or more years.
Consideration #3: Your Future Tax Bracket
One of the main reasons an individual chooses to do a Roth conversion is for the advantage of tax-free withdrawals in retirement. With that in mind, you’ll want to take into consideration whether your tax bracket will be higher or lower in the future when you anticipate withdrawing the funds. If you believe you’ll be in a lower tax bracket come retirement, it may be worth waiting to withdraw the funds then. On the other hand, if you’ve experienced a year of interrupted or lowered income (deployed to a combat zone, retired from the military), you may be in a lower tax bracket now than you would when entering retirement.
Consideration #4: How Much to Convert and When
If you’re on the cusp of a higher tax bracket, but still want to do a Roth conversion, you do have the option to convert a portion at a time. By spreading the conversion across several years (as opposed to one lump sum), you can lower your yearly tax obligation. And don't just look at your tax bracket, look at credits as well and if you're retired confirm the effect on your Medicare premiums (which you have to pay to be qualified for Tricare for Life).
How to Make a Roth Conversion
The IRS offers three possible ways for an individual to convert funds from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA account. These methods include:
- Rollover: You are given the funds and must put the funds into a Roth IRA account within 60 days.
- Trustee-to-trustee transfer: The institution currently housing your traditional IRA transfers the distribution to a different institution where it'll be held in a Roth IRA.
- Same trustee transfer: The institution currently housing your traditional IRA is able to also house your Roth IRA, and they roll the account over for you.1
Being able to withdraw income tax-free in retirement is an appealing option for many. And it’s good to know that while you may have chosen to open a traditional IRA years ago that you have the option to convert it at any time. Before making any moves to your retirement savings account, make sure to speak with your financial advisor first. Together, you can go over these important considerations in regards to your unique financial situation.
If you found this article useful, you might like the following blog posts:
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Military Tax Benefit: Rollover of SGLI Proceeds to a Roth IRA
Roth vs. Traditional IRA: Which is Better for Military Officers?
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