Is the Roth right for you?

This year, it happened — something many have been predicting for years: Taxes went up. And most likely, the hikes will just keep coming. There's no other way to pay off the country's debt and fund the ballooning entitlements due the baby boomers as they retire. The increases may not affect everyone, and those who earn more will pay more, but someone's gotta pay.

One way to hedge against higher tax rates is to contribute to a Roth retirement account. Your contributions aren't tax-deductible, but the withdrawals are tax-free once you turn 59 ½ and you've had a Roth account for at least five years. Who wouldn't want tax-free money if tax rates are just going higher?

Well, as attractive as the Roth can be, it's not always the best choice for everyone. You see, a contribution to a Roth means you are forgoing a contribution to a traditional retirement account, which might give you a tax-deduction today in exchange for paying taxes in retirement. So the choice is: Should you pay taxes today or in retirement?

Here's the rule of thumb: If you're in a higher tax bracket today than you will be in retirement, stick with the traditional account. However, if you expect to be paying a higher tax rate in your golden years, go with the Roth. The same math applies when considering a “conversion,” which is turning a traditional account into a Roth. The amount in the traditional IRA that comes from deductible contributions or investment growth is taxed as ordinary income in the year of the conversion, but then it grows tax-free.

That's all handy-dandy, but there's one problem: While it's a safe bet taxes will go up, it's difficult to predict what that will mean for any given individual. Still, here are some considerations:

  • For many reasons, such as a drop in income, most people pay fewer taxes in retirement than they did while they were working. Plus, it's likely that senior citizens, as a group, will bear the smallest brunt of future tax hikes.
  • Make sure to factor in the difference in tax rates between the state where you currently live and the state to which you'll retire, if you plan to move.
  • A traditional vs. Roth calculation assumes that any tax savings from contributing to the traditional account is invested and saved for retirement. If you'll instead spend those tax savings, then the Roth looks much more attractive.

As an example, consider the situation of a Motley Fool reader, who posted his Roth conundrum on one of our discussion boards. He's in the 33 percent federal tax bracket, and pays a 9 percent state income tax to boot. It's possible he'll move to Texas after he retires, which is among the seven states that don't have an income tax. (The others include Florida and Nevada, also popular retirement destinations.) So if he were to contribute $10,000 to a Roth rather than a traditional account, he'd be giving up on a $4,200 tax deduction, factoring in both federal and state taxes. He's better off sticking with the traditional account, especially factoring in the possible move to Texas.

Sneaking in through the backdoor

The fellow can contribute to a Roth 401(k) because his employer offers the option. Otherwise, he'd be out of luck since his income makes him ineligible for a Roth IRA. Once you earn a modified adjusted gross income (AGI) of $112,000 if you're single or $178,000 if you're married, your ability to contribute gradually phases out.

However, all is not lost for those who don't have a Roth account at work, are ineligible for a Roth IRA, or have already maxed out their 401(k)s. It gets complicated, so stick with us.

First off, not all contributions to a traditional IRA are deductible. If you have a plan at work and are single with an AGI of $59,000 or are married and have an AGI of $95,000, your ability to deduct the contributions gets phased out. If you're above those income limits, you can make a nondeductible contribution to a traditional IRA. As the name implies, you can't deduct the contribution, but the investments still grow tax-deferred.

Now, here's where the Roth comes in. If you don't have any pretax money in traditional IRAs, including SEPs, SIMPLEs, and rollovers from prior employers' plans, you can immediately convert that traditional IRA to Roth. (And by “you,” we mean that you can ignore what your spouse has.) Here's the real bonus: Because you couldn't deduct the contribution and because the account didn't have an opportunity to grow, you won't owe any taxes on the conversion. This little trick has become known as the “backdoor Roth.”

It gets complicated if you have pretax money in a traditional IRA, since the amount is prorated across all the accounts for tax purposes. For example, if you have $50,000 in pretax IRAs, and then you make a nondeductible contribution of $5,000 to a traditional IRA and immediately convert that account to a Roth, only 10 percent ($50,000 divided by $5,000) will be tax-free. However, there's one possible way around this. You can transfer those pretax assets to your existing 401(k), if your employer allows it. The downside: 401(k)s have limited and often pricier investments, and most don't allow individual stocks and bonds.

Finally, based solely on the math, younger people in the 15 percent or lower tax bracket who expect to build up a large portfolio over their careers should choose the Roth.

Other benefits of the Roth

That's the math. But there are other perks to the Roth that might tip the scales in its favor if the math is fuzzy.

  • Contributions to a Roth IRA – not earnings – can be withdrawn tax- and penalty-free before age 59 1/2. This has its downsides, since it makes it more tempting to spend money that should be left for retirement. But there are some proponents of using the Roth IRA as a college savings account, and even an emergency fund.
  • Unlike the traditional IRA and 401(k), the Roth IRA does not have required minimum distributions (RMDs) at age 70 ½. The Roth 401(k) does, but you can transfer the money to a Roth IRA after you retire to get around RMDs.
  • Anyone who inherits a traditional IRA will have to pay ordinary income taxes on the distributions. However, the Roth account will still maintain its tax-free status. And nothing says “I love you” like giving someone tax-free retirement savings. (However, all retirement accounts are included in the calculation of whether estate taxes are due.)

The bottom line

We know the direction of tax rates (i.e., up), but we don't know the magnitude and the targets. They're decided by Congress, and who knows what those folks will do? Of course, they didn't put themselves in office, which means the decision ultimately lies with the voters — and they can be even crazier. Some people argue that we can't even assume that distributions from a Roth will remain tax-free. But just as diversification is important in your portfolio, tax diversification can also make sense. For many retiree wannabes, one way to hedge against future significant tax increases is to have at least some assets in a Roth account.

More about...Investing, Retirement

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