What Do I Need to Know about Roth IRA Conversions?

People with large tax-deferred accounts they intend to leave to their children can eliminate a tax burden on their heirs, by converting the tax-deferred money over time. By doing the conversion this way, says a recent article from The Wall Street Journal entitled “Roth IRA Conversions: What You Need to Know,” the cost is manageable and the heirs won’t have to pay taxes.

For a Roth conversion, the owner pays income tax on every dollar converted, which makes sense for people who retire early and want to avoid higher taxes in the future, or when children inherit the assets.

Recent changes require account owners to start taking required minimum distributions at age 72. The withdrawals can be costly in two ways: pushing household income into a higher tax bracket and forcing Medicare premiums higher.

Withdrawals from a Roth IRA, on the other hand, are not taxed and have no required distributions. It is tax-free money, since taxes are already paid. It can be a cash fund as needed, or a tax-free legacy to heirs.

The interest in Roth conversion increased since Congress tightened rules for inheriting tax-deferred assets. In the past, heirs had a lifetime to take withdrawals from inherited IRA accounts. Now, only surviving spouses and a small group of other individuals have this option. For everyone else, there’s a ten-year window to empty the account, which means increased income tax bills, especially for heirs who are already in high tax brackets.

Those who do the conversion over an extended period of time eliminate a tax timebomb for heirs and funds can be invested more aggressively to maximize growth.

In the simplest type of conversion, the owner notifies the custodian of the account of their wish to move assets from the tax deferred account to the Roth account. They need to specify how much they want to move, what funds they want to move and what date they want the transaction to happen. When taxes are filed the next year, all of the money transferred is treated as ordinary income.

Doing this during a market decline is a smart move. One investor moved $200,000 of stock mutual funds during the market downturn, which cost him about $85,000 in federal and state taxes. The converted funds have since bounced back to around $320,000, above where they were before the market decline. Those gains in a tax-deferred account would have been taxable, but now, they are tax free.

Seniors who have low taxable income, but large tax-deferred accounts, might consider doing a conversion every year before reaching age 72, when they must begin taking required minimum distributions.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 19, 2020), “Roth IRA Conversions: What You Need to Know,”

How to Benefit from a Roth IRA and Social Security

When originally created, Social Security was designed to prevent the elderly and infirm from sinking into dire poverty. When most working Americans enjoyed a pension from their employer, Social Security was an additional source of income and made for a comfortable retirement. However, with an average monthly benefit just over $1,500 and few pensions, today’s Social Security is not enough money for most Americans to maintain a middle-class standard of living, says the article “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security” from Tuscon.com. It’s important to plan for additional income streams and one to consider is the Roth IRA.

Roth IRAs can be funded at any age. Many seniors today are continuing to work to generate income or to continue a fulfilling life. Their earnings can be put into a Roth IRA, regardless of age. If you are still working but don’t need the paycheck, that’s a perfect way to fund the Roth IRA.

Withdrawals from a Roth won’t trigger taxes on Social Security benefits. If your only income is Social Security, you probably won’t have to worry about federal taxes. However, if you are working while you are collecting benefits, once your earnings reach a certain level, those benefits will be taxed.

To calculate taxes on Social Security benefits, you’ll need to determine your provisional income, which is the non-Social Security income plus half of your early benefit. If you earn between $25,000 and $44,000 as a single tax filer or between $32,000 and $44,000 as a married couple, you could be taxed as much as 50% of your Social Security benefits. If your single income goes past $34,000 and married income goes past $44,000, you could be taxed on up to 85% of your benefits.

If you put money into a Roth IRA, withdrawals don’t count towards your provisional income. That could leave you with more money from Social Security.

A Roth IRA is flexible. The Roth IRA is the only tax-advantaged retirement savings plan that does not impose Required Minimum Distributions or RMDs. That’s because you’ve already paid taxes when funds went into the account. However, the flexibility is worth it. You can leave the money in the account for as long as you want, so savings continue to grow tax-free. You can also leave money to your heirs.

While you don’t have to put your savings into a Roth IRA, doing so throughout your career—or starting at any age—will give you benefits throughout retirement.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Oct. 5, 2020) “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security”

How to Make Beneficiary Designations Better
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How to Make Beneficiary Designations Better

Beneficiary designations supersede all other estate planning documents, so getting them right makes an important difference in achieving your estate plan goals. Mistakes with beneficiary designations can undo even the best plan, says a recent article “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid” from The Street. Periodically reviewing beneficiary forms, including confirming the names in writing with plan providers for workplace plans and IRA custodians, is important.

Post-death changes, if they can be made (which is rare), are expensive and generally involve litigation or private letter rulings from the IRS. Avoiding these five commonly made mistakes is a better way to go.

1—Neglecting to name a beneficiary. If no beneficiary is named for a retirement plan, the estate typically becomes the beneficiary. In the case of IRAs, language in the custodial agreement will determine who gets the assets. The distribution of the retirement plan is accelerated, which means that the assets may need to be completely withdrawn in as little as five years, if death occurs before the decedent’s required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).

With no beneficiary named, retirement plans become probate accounts and transferring assets to heirs becomes subject to delays and probate fees. Assets might also be distributed to people you didn’t want to be recipients.

2—Naming the estate as the beneficiary. The same issues occur here, as when no beneficiary is named. The asset’s distributions will be accelerated, and the plan will become a probate account. As a general rule, estates should never be named as a beneficiary.

3—Not naming a spouse as a primary beneficiary. The ability to stretch out the distribution of retirement plans ended when the SECURE Act was passed. It still allows for lifetime distributions, but this only applies to certain people, categorized as “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries” or “EDBs.” This includes surviving spouses, minor children, disabled or special needs individuals, chronically ill people and individuals who are not more than ten years younger than the retirement plan’s owner. If your heirs do not fall into this category, they are subject to a ten-year rule. They have only ten years to withdraw all assets from the account(s).

If your goal is to maximize the distribution period and you are married, the best beneficiary is your spouse. This is also required by law for company plans subject to ERISA, a federal law that governs employee benefits. If you want to select another beneficiary for a workplace plan, your spouse will need to sign a written spousal consent agreement. IRAs are not subject to ERISA and there is no requirement to name your spouse as a beneficiary.

4—Not naming contingent beneficiaries. Without contingency, or “backup beneficiaries,” you risk having assets being payable to your estate, if the primary beneficiaries predecease you. Those assets will become part of your probate estate and your wishes about who receives the asset may not be fulfilled.

5—Failure to revise beneficiaries when life changes occur. Beneficiary designations should be checked whenever there is a review of the estate plan and as life changes take place. This is especially true in the case of a divorce or separation.

Any account that permits a beneficiary to be named should have paperwork completed, reviewed periodically and revised. This includes life insurance and annuity beneficiary forms, trust documents and pre-or post-nuptial agreements.

Reference: The Street (Aug. 11, 2020) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”