• Tom Culpepper

Roth IRA Conversions After Tax Reform...Still a good idea?

Twenty years ago, the Roth IRA first became available to investors as a financial tool for their estate planning needs. These accounts have maintained their popularity because, unlike their traditional IRA counterpart, a Roth IRA provides account owners tax-free income during retirement.

In fact, many people chose to convert their traditional IRA or 401(k) plan into a Roth IRA to benefit from this long-term tax advantage. (Of course, there is a current tax bill that has to be considered when you make a conversion.) The recently enacted tax reform, however, has removed one helpful opportunity: the ability to recharacterize -- or undo -- a Roth IRA conversion.

You can think of these recharacterizations as a second-look at whether the conversion made financial sense. For example, Kevin decides to convert a $100,000 traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. When Kevin does this, he has to pay income tax on the $100,000 now. This isn’t as bad of a deal as it sounds, because now the money is in a Roth IRA, where eventually all of the withdrawals will be tax free. When Kevin retires, he’ll have “tax-free” income from the Roth IRA instead of having to pay income tax on each withdrawal if it were still in the traditional IRA. In the past, if the market were to decline to say $90,000, Kevin could recharacterize -- or undo -- the conversion. This is important because he had to pay income tax on the full $100,000 of the conversion, but assets have declined in value only $90,000. So, Kevin would be paying income tax on a “phantom” $10,000 IRA conversion. Now, this second-look that a recharacterization offered is closed, so a Roth IRA conversion is just a little riskier than is used to be.

Implications For Loved Ones

Many people who create IRAs, and the ones who inherit them, are unfamiliar with the rules that apply to them. There are several basic scenarios that will result in different consequences for your loved ones in the event you pass away and leave behind an IRA.

First, if you die before spending all the money in your IRA you can leave the retirement account to your surviving children, grandchildren, or other beneficiary you have designated in your estate plan.

Second, the type of IRA -- in other words, whether it is a traditional IRA versus a Roth IRA -- is important as it vastly affects the amount of benefit your loved ones will receive. For example, when you leave behind a traditional IRA your family will pay income taxes on the money they withdraw when it is taken out of the account. On the other hand, if you leave behind a Roth IRA the money will be income tax-free for your family. Although both types of accounts are subject to the estate tax (or death tax), the death tax is likely a non-issue for most people now, as the federal estate exemption is presently over $11 million per person.

Third, you can create an IRA trust as part of your comprehensive estate plan. An IRA trust is special trust that is purposefully designed to receive IRA distributions for the benefit of your loved ones after you die. This powerful tool provides several benefits. For example, an IRA trust protects inherited retirement money from creditors. So, whether you decide to convert or not, you still need to consider an IRA trust.

Finally, although tax reformed altered the flexibility of IRA conversions by removing the ability to undo them with a recharacterization, a conversion may still be a good financial planning option for some. As you work with your financial and tax advisors on your conversions, consider your beneficiary designations and whether an IRA trust might be right for you.

Contact an Estate Planning Professional

There are several factors that should be considered when choosing financial and estate planning tools. Always work with a knowledgeable financial and tax professional. Then, work with us, as your estate planning professional, so we can achieve your goals and maximize the benefit to your loved ones.

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