Last Chance for a Segregated Roth Conversion

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Roth Recharaterizations are no longer part of the tax code.

For a description of how this changes this Roth conversion strategy, read “No Roth Recharacterizations After 2017?

A tax tsunami is coming at the end of this year. The higher your adjusted gross income (AGI), the closer you live to the coast where the tsunami will hit. This is the last chance you will have to put your assets in a lifeboat and avoid getting swamped with taxes.

At the end of 2010, the Bush tax cuts will expire. The Obama administration is not expected to alter the rates significantly before then. They don’t want to be held accountable for raising taxes before the midterm elections. And they would rather blame the previous administration for a crazy expiring tax law.

Right now, tax rates are at a historic low. But after 2010, counting all the tax changes, top marginal tax rates may rise from 44.6% to 62.4%. Thus you will only have to pay a maximum of 44.6% on income you can take before 2011, but after that you may have to pay 17.8% more in tax.

If you have an income over $100,000, this is the first year you can take money from your traditional IRA, pay tax as though that money is ordinary income and convert it to a Roth IRA. This procedure is called a “Roth conversion.”

Roth IRA accounts are to your advantage if your tax rate will be higher in retirement when you withdraw the money than it was when you contributed. With a Roth IRA, you pay tax on the acorn. With a traditional IRA, you get a bigger acorn to start with, but you pay tax on the oak. Many families have actually lost money by investing in their traditional IRA when they were young and in a lower tax bracket, only to find themselves in a much higher bracket during their retirement. A year from now, we will all be in a higher tax bracket.

If you execute a Roth conversion this month, January 2010, you do not have to pay the tax on that conversion until April 15, 2011. You also may change your mind. If you decide the conversion wasn’t worth it, you can move the money from the Roth account back to a traditional IRA account. This is called a “Roth recharacterization.”

Recharacterizing a Roth conversion can be done any time before you file your taxes, including the filing extension. So if you file an extension you can change your mind any time before October 15, 2011. And you can decide to recharacterize part or all of what you converted.

The upside is that you can use all these laws and changes to maximize your after-tax investments. During the next few years, tax planning and management will be a significant part of wealth management. But it needs to be put together as part of a larger plan.

Here’s the timeline of how to use a Roth conversion to maximize your investments. Now is the time to do five Roth conversions of equal amounts into five separate accounts. You aren’t going to keep them all, so you can convert five times as much as you want to end up keeping and actually paying tax on. Invest each Roth account in a different asset class (e.g., large-cap U.S. stock, small-cap U.S. stock, foreign stock, emerging markets and hard asset stocks).

The five accounts will appreciate differently, but the entire portfolio will be fairly well balanced. Before April 15, 2011, decide if you will be keeping only one account or more than one. If more than one has appreciated significantly, you may want to keep more than one account’s conversion. Compute your tax liability for the year and pay the tax, but instead of filing your return, file an extension.

Before the October 15, 2011, extension deadline, decide which of the five accounts you are going to keep. By now, nearly a year and three quarters has elapsed. You can easily determine which account has appreciated the most. Keep that one, and recharacterize the other four. Because you only have to pay taxes on the amount you originally converted, it’s like betting on the horse race after the winner has already been determined. After recharacterizing the accounts, file your tax return before October 15.

If all of the accounts decrease in value, recharacterize them all and pay no tax. Financially, you are none the worse for having filled out a stack of paperwork. If only one account appreciates significantly, you only keep one conversion. But you have increased the odds of your Roth account appreciating by five times.

The average return of the S&P 500 is about 11%, but the standard deviation is about 19%. All of the other asset classes have an even higher standard deviation. It is likely, for example, that emerging markets will be either the best or the worst performing asset class over any two-year period. Using this technique you can guarantee that the Roth conversion you keep will have been invested in the best asset class during that year and three quarters.

Segregating each of the five conversions into a separate account allows you to decide to recharacterize or let each account stand separately. The difference in returns between the average and the best account is liable to be 20% or more over the year and a half before you have to choose which accounts to keep. Coupling the 17.8% tax savings and this Roth segregation technique could boost your returns by 30% or more.

In the quite likely event that all five accounts have appreciated significantly, you may decide to keep them all. Once you have reached the maximum tax rate, the top marginal rate does not increase from there. Those most fearful of expectations of higher tax rates soaking the rich after 2010 would be those most likely to benefit from converting everything.

You are a good candidate for a Roth conversion in 2010 if you have the following characteristics. You have an AGI more than $100,000 and so have not been able to convert previously. You have a large IRA that could be converted. You expect your tax bill to be higher in the future. You have sufficient taxable assets to pay the tax. You would like to reduce the value of your gross estate and leave a tax-free asset to your heirs. You are willing to pay estimated taxes and increased tax preparation fees.

Even thought this technique could boost your after-tax returns, be careful. Executing a Roth segregation account requires professional assistance. Such a technique should be just one small part of a larger comprehensive financial plan. And you should seek the guidance of a personal fee-only financial planner and certified public accountant (CPA) who have a legal obligation to act in your best interests. The laws are changing annually, and as a result so is the optimum path.

Photo by Sheelah Brennan on Unsplash

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President, CFP®, AIF®, AAMS®

David John Marotta is the Founder and President of Marotta Wealth Management. He played for the State Department chess team at age 11, graduated from Stanford, taught Computer and Information Science, and still loves math and strategy games. In addition to his financial writing, David is a co-author of The Haunting of Bob Cratchit.