How the new tax law created a ‘perfect storm’ for Roth IRA conversions in 2019


By Bill Bischoff

The new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes Roth IRAs even more attractive and they can provide insurance against future tax rate increases that I think are almost inevitable. Here’s what you need to know about Roth IRAs and especially Roth IRA conversions in the post-TCJA world.

Roth IRAs have two big tax advantages

The two most-important Roth IRA tax advantages are:

Tax-Free withdrawals

Unlike traditional IRA withdrawals, qualified Roth IRA withdrawals are federal-income-tax-free and usually state-income-tax-free too. What is a qualified withdrawal? It’s one that is taken after you, as the Roth account owner, have met both of the following requirements:

1. You’ve had at least one Roth IRA open for over five years.

2. You’ve reached age 59½ or become disabled or dead.

For purposes of meeting the five-year requirement, the clock starts ticking on the first day of the tax year for which you make your initial contribution to your first Roth account. That initial contribution can be a regular annual contribution, or it can be a conversion contribution. For example, say your initial Roth pay-in was an annual contribution made on 4/1/17 for your 2016 tax year. The five-year clock started ticking on 1/1/16 (the beginning of the tax year for which the contribution was made), and you will meet the five-year requirement on 1/1/21.

Exempt from required minimum distribution rules

Unlike with a traditional IRA, you don’t have to start taking annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from Roth accounts after reaching age 70½. Instead, you can leave your Roth account(s) untouched for as long as you live if you wish. This important privilege makes your Roth IRA a great asset to leave to your heirs (to the extent you don’t need the Roth money to help finance your own retirement).

Making annual Roth IRA contributions

Annual Roth contributions make the most sense for those who believe they will pay the same or higher tax rates during retirement. Higher future taxes can be avoided on Roth account earnings, because qualified Roth withdrawals are federal-income-tax-free (and usually state-income-tax-free too).

The downside is you get no deductions for making Roth contributions.

So if you expect to pay lower tax rates during retirement (good luck with that), you might be better off making deductible traditional IRA contributions (assuming your income permits), because the current deductions may be worth more to you than tax-free withdrawals later on.

The other best-case scenario for annual Roth contributions is when you have maxed out on deductible retirement plan contributions. For example, you’ve contributed the maximum possible amount to your 401(k) plan at work. In that case, making Roth contributions is basically a no-brainer.

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