A new conversion opportunity recently became available to higher-income taxpayers. But as with many investment decisions that require consideration of pre-tax and after-tax returns, the costs and benefits of Roth conversion may not be obvious to most investors. A number of factors should be considered in evaluating whether to convert to a Roth: the size and asset allocation of your overall investment portfolio, the cumulative amount of after-tax contributions in your individual retirement accounts, when you expect to draw upon your IRA, and your current and expected future marginal tax rates, to name a few. For many high-income taxpayers, Roth conversion offers a very significant opportunity to protect retirement investments from future taxes. In this article I provide some facts about Roth IRAs and offer my opinions about issues that should be considered in an evaluation of whether to convert to a Roth.

  • Taxes are the key difference between a Roth IRA and a regular IRA.

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  • Almost everyone is eligible for Roth conversion.

While high-income taxpayers are not permitted to make direct contributions to a Roth, a change in tax law, beginning with the 2010 tax year, gives most taxpayers the ability to convert existing, regular IRAs (including SEP-IRAs and Rollover IRAs) to Roth IRAs.

Opinion: Roth IRAs have not been widely available for higher-income taxpayers due to the income limitations. For many such taxpayers, Roth conversion offers a highly attractive way to shield retirement investment accounts from future taxes.

  • Roth conversion accelerates taxes.

If you make a Roth conversion, the value of the converted assets will be subject to ordinary income tax (with a few exceptions, discussed later) in the year of conversion. However, for conversions effected in 2010 only, you may elect to pay the taxes resulting from conversion in 2010, or to defer the tax by spreading the income equally between 2011 and 2012.

Opinion: The IRS is offering taxpayers a cash flow benefit by allowing them to defer the recognition of income until 2011 and 2012. However, marginal tax rates are currently scheduled to increase in 2011.

  • Current year IRA contributions may be converted.

If you do not already have an Individual Retirement Account, but are otherwise eligible to make regular IRA contributions, you may establish an account before April 15th and fund it with your contributions for both 2010 and 2011. You may then immediately convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.

Opinion: Immediate conversion offers a means for higher-income taxpayers to effectively make Roth contributions without regard to the income limit.

  • Non-deductible IRA contributions are not subject to tax at the time of conversion.

If you have an individual retirement account that consists entirely of non-deductible contributions (i.e. contributions for which you did not claim any prior tax deduction) then you will not owe tax upon conversion to a Roth, because the tax has already been paid. However, you would be obligated to pay income tax on any appreciation in the account. If you have both pre-tax and after-tax accounts (including, for example, IRA rollovers from 401k or 403b plans), you may not cherry-pick accounts for conversion. Rather, the tax on converted amounts will be based upon an IRS formula designed to capture the value of any account (or part thereof) upon which tax has not already been paid.

Opinion: Roth conversion may be especially attractive for individuals whose IRAs consist primarily of after-tax contributions, since there would not be much tax owed as a result of conversion and the account would subsequently be shielded from tax. Note that the amount of tax owed as a result of Roth conversion will be dependent on your income (before the effect of conversion), your marginal tax rate, the total value of all Roth conversions effected by you during the tax year, the value of IRAs that have not been converted, and the ratio of after-tax IRA contributions to overall account values, among other factors. The specific tax rules are complex and you are advised to consult your financial advisor and/or tax accountant regarding the tax implications of conversion, given your personal circumstances.

  • Partial Roth conversions are permitted.

You are allowed to convert all or part of one or more individual retirement accounts to a Roth IRA.

Opinion: Depending on your marginal tax rate and the composition of your overall investment portfolio, including the value of investments held in taxable accounts, a partial conversion may be the most effective way to minimize your overall tax liability.

  • Roth IRAs require no minimum distributions.

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