Is a Roth Conversion a Good Idea when the Market Is Down?

A stock market downturn may be a prime time for a Roth IRA conversion, reports CNBC’s recent article titled “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market.” This is especially true if you were considering a Roth conversion and never got around to it.

A Roth conversion allows higher earners to sidestep earnings limits for Roth IRA contributions, which are capped at $144,000 MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income) for singles and $214,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2022.

Investors make non-deductible contributions to a pre-tax IRA, before converting funds to a Roth IRA. The tradeoff is the upfront tax bill created by contributions and earnings. The bigger the pre-tax balance, the more taxes you’ll pay on the conversion. However, the current market may make this a perfect time for a Roth conversion.

Let’s say you own a traditional IRA worth $100,000, and its value drops to $65,000. Ouch! However, you can save money by converting $65,000 to a Roth instead of $100,000. You’ll pay taxes on the $65,000, not $100,000.

According to Fidelity Investments, the first quarter of 2022 saw Roth conversions increase by 18%, compared to the first quarter of 2021. That was before the second quarter’s market volatility, which has been more dramatic.

The decision to do a Roth conversion can’t take place in a vacuum. Consider how many years of tax savings it will take to break even on the upfront tax bill. Weigh combined balances across any other IRA accounts, because of the “pro-rata rule,” which factors in your total pre-tax and after-tax funds to determine your tax costs.

Attractive features of the Roth IRA are the freedom to take—or not take—distributions when you want, and there are no taxes on the withdrawals. However, there is an exception, and it pertains to conversions—the five year rule.

If you do a conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before making any withdrawals of the converted balance, regardless of your age. It’s an expensive mistake, with a 10% penalty. The clock begins running on January 1 of the year of the conversion. If you are close to retirement and will need funds within that timeframe, you’ll need other assets to live on.

However, there’s more. If the conversion increases your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), it may create other issues. Medicare Part B calculates monthly premiums using Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) from two years prior, which means a higher income in 2022 will lead to higher Medicare bills in 2024.

Before doing a Roth conversion, evaluate your entire financial and retirement situation.

Reference: CNBC (May 10, 2022) “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market”

The High Cost of Medicare Mistakes

A 68-year-old woman knew that she had to sign up at age 65 for Medicare Part A for hospital care and Part B for outpatient care, since she did not have employer provided health insurance from an employer with 20 or more employees. She knew also that if she did not have health insurance from an employer and didn’t sign up immediately, she’d face a penalty with higher Part B and Part D premiums for the rest of her life when eventually she did sign up, reports Forbes in the article “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps.”

Here’s where it got sticky: she thought that Medicare provided an eight-month special enrollment period after one job ended to apply penalty free. She is employed on a sporadic basis, so she thought she had a window of time. Between the ages of 65 and 68, she had several jobs with large employers, and was never out of work for more than eight months.

She was out of work for 25 months total between ages 65 and 68, when she was not enrolled in Medicare. She thought that since she was never out of work for more than eight months, she didn’t have to sign up until she officially stopped working and would then enroll penalty free in traditional Medicare Parts A, B, and D.

She had read information on the Medicare website and her interpretation of the information was wrong. It was a costly mistake.

In determining whether you need to permanently pay a Medicare Part B penalty, Medicare counts up all the months between age 65 and the month you first enroll in Part B, even if you have a job with a large employer with no gaps in employment for more than eight months.

She got hit with a 20% lifetime Medicare Part B premium penalty. For every 12 months that you’re not covered by Medicare B after reaching 65 and before you enroll, the penalty is an additional 10%. And making things worse, she was hit with a Medicare Part B penalty based on the cumulative (not consecutive, which is an important difference) 25 months that she went without credible prescription drug coverage.

This is the sort of problem that does not self-resolve or get better over time. In this case, another mistake in timing is going to hurt her. She sold some assets and realized a capital gain in 2018, which increased her Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI). In 2020, she’s going to have to pay the Income Related Monthly Adjustment Amount (IRMAA). If your MAGI, two years before the current year, is less than $87,000, you are exempt from IRMAA in the current year. Her cost: $1,735.20 more this year. Had she instead realized those capital gains over the course of several years, her 2018 MAGI might not have crossed the $87,000 threshold. Most people are not aware of the IRMAA and take capital gains in larger amounts than they need.

This is a harsh lesson to learn, at a time in life when there’s not a lot of flexibility or time to catch up. Talking with an estate planning lawyer about Medicare and about tax planning, as well as having an estate plan created, would have spared this woman, and countless others, from the harsh consequences of her mistakes.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 29, 2020) “Beware Medicare’s Part B Premium Penalty And Surcharge Traps”