Obamacare Court Decision May Impact Roth Conversion

Roth Conversions and ObamacareOn June 28, the Supreme Court affirmed Obamacare. Numerous tax changes were included in the law. Some have already gone into effect and others are scheduled to kick in over the next several years. A new 3.8% surtax on investment income will start on January 1, 2013. Capital gains rates will increase from 15% to 18.8%. And, if Congress allows the Bush tax cuts to expire, the top rate would be 23.8% on capital gains and 43.4% on dividends.

Advisers and investors are now looking at ways to accelerate income into 2012 and considering other long-term strategies, such as converting a regular IRA into a Roth IRA.

Regular IRAs have been characterized as “deals with the devil” that taxpayers make with the IRS. Money invested is not taxed when contributed but later, after the amounts have grown over the years, and then the tax is based on the full amount of the IRA, including earnings, at the then current tax rates. 

With a conversion to a Roth, a taxpayer ends the “arrangement.” Taxes are paid on amounts not previously taxed. The taxpayer can continue to grow the Roth account from that point without tax and pay no tax at the time of distribution(s). Furthermore, the taxpayer and their spouse are not required to take regular minimum distributions starting at age 70 ½ as are required for traditional IRAs. Hence, a Roth account could grow tax free for decades without tax and could continue to grow tax-free during the beneficiaries’ lifetimes as well, though annual distributions are required once mom and dad die.

So, the question is, does it make sense to convert now, based on new taxes going into effect in 2013 and the likelihood that income taxes will increase in coming years? And, if so, when should the conversion be done? Here are a few rules of thumb:

  1. If you are likely to leave money to your heirs, then a Roth account is the best possible asset you could leave them. Investments within a Roth account grow tax-free. Hence, inheriting a Roth account is better than cash. Consider converting.
  2. If you are likely to spend your IRA(s) in your lifetime, conversion is probably not the best idea. In this case, your earnings in retirement will likely be less than your working years. Hence, even though tax rates are higher overall, your individual tax rate may be the same or lower.
  3. If you are not sure, then you should have your fee-only, independent Registered Investment Advisor run some scenarios for you of conversion or not, using hypothetical tax rates during working and retirement years. Taxpayers can get a real “bang for their buck” when using non-IRA funds to pay the income taxes on conversion to a Roth.

Check with your CPA before you make your final decision. If you do decide to convert, you may want to convert over time, perhaps 5-10 years, so that the income produced by the conversion doesn’t push you into a higher tax bracket. The special conversion election in 2010 to split the income and report it in 2011 and 2012 no longer applies. However, conversion still is available regardless of the income of the taxpayer(s).