Roth IRA Conversion: Rules and Examples

January 30, 2024 · 10 minute read

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Roth IRA Conversion: Rules and Examples

A Roth IRA is a retirement savings account that offers tax-free withdrawals during retirement. You can convert a traditional IRA or a qualified distribution from a previous employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k), into a Roth IRA. This is known as a Roth IRA conversion.

A Roth IRA conversion may be worth considering for the potential tax benefits. Along with tax-free qualified withdrawals in retirement, the money in a Roth IRA has the potential to grow tax-free. Read on to learn how a conversion works, the Roth IRA conversion rules, and whether a Roth IRA conversion may make sense for you.

What Is a Roth IRA Conversion?

With a Roth IRA conversion, an individual moves the funds from another retirement plan into a Roth IRA. You pay taxes on the money in your existing account in order to move it to a Roth IRA.

Many retirement plans, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs are tax-deferred. The money is contributed to your account with pre-tax dollars. In retirement, you would pay taxes on your withdrawals. But by doing a Roth conversion, you pay taxes on the money you convert to a Roth IRA, and the money can then potentially grow tax-free. In retirement, you can make qualified withdrawals from the Roth IRA tax-free.

You can convert all or part of your money to a Roth IRA.

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How Does a Roth IRA Conversion Work?

As mentioned, when converting to a Roth IRA, an individual must pay taxes on the contributions and gains in their current retirement plan because only after-tax contributions are allowed to a Roth IRA. They can typically convert their funds to a Roth IRA in one of three ways:

•   An indirect rollover: With this method, the owner of the account receives a distribution from a traditional IRA and can then contribute it to a Roth IRA within 60 days.

•   A trustee-to-trustee, or direct IRA rollover: The account owner tells the financial institution currently holding the traditional IRA assets to transfer an amount directly to the trustee of a new Roth IRA account at a different financial institution.

•   A same-trustee transfer: This is used when a traditional IRA is housed in the same financial institution as the new Roth IRA. The owner of the account alerts the institution to transfer an amount from the traditional IRA to the Roth IRA.

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Roth IRA Conversion Rules

There are a number of rules that govern a Roth IRA conversion. Before you proceed with a conversion, it’s important to understand what;’s involved. Roth IRA conversion rules include:

Taxes

You’ll pay taxes on a traditional IRA or 401(k) before you convert it to a Roth IRA. This includes the tax-deductible contributions you’ve made to the account as well as the tax-deferred earnings. They will be taxed as ordinary income in the year that you make the conversion. Because they’re considered additional income, they could put you into a higher marginal tax bracket. You’ll also need to make sure you have the money on hand to pay the taxes.

Limits

There are two types of limits to be aware of with a Roth IRA conversion. First, there is no limit to the number or size of Roth IRA conversions you can make. You might want to convert smaller amounts of money into a Roth IRA over a period of several years to help manage the amount of taxes you’ll need to pay in one year.

Second, Roth IRAs have contribution limits. For instance, in 2024, you can typically contribute up to $7,000, or up to $8,000 if you’re 50 or older.

Withdrawals

The withdrawals you make from a Roth IRA are tax-free. However, with a Roth IRA conversion, if you are under age 59 ½, you will need to wait at least five years before withdrawing the money or you’ll be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty (more on that below).

Backdoor Roth IRAs

A Roth IRA conversion may be an option to consider if you earn too much money to otherwise be eligible for a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs have contribution phase-out ranges, and individuals whose income exceeds those limits cannot contribute to a Roth fully or at all. For 2024, the income limits begin to phase out at $230,000 for those who are married and filing jointly, and $146,000 for those who are single.

However, if you have a traditional IRA and convert it to a Roth IRA — a process known as a backdoor Roth IRA — those income phase-out rules don’t apply. You can use a backdoor IRA as long as you pay taxes on any contributions to the traditional IRA that you deducted from your taxes, as well as any profits you earned.

5-Year Rule

According to the 5-year rule, if you are under age 59 ½, the funds that you convert to a Roth IRA must remain in your account for at least five years or you could be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

The five years starts at the beginning of the calendar year in which you do the conversion. So even if you don’t do the conversion until, say, December 2024, the five years still begins in January 2024. That means you could withdraw your funds in January 2029.

Also, if you complete separate Roth IRA conversions in different years, the 5-year rule would apply to each of them, so keep this in mind.

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Is Converting to a Roth IRA Right for You?

Doing a Roth IRA conversion means paying taxes now on the funds you are converting in order to withdraw money tax-free in retirement. Here’s how to decide if converting a Roth IRA may be right for you

Reasons For

If you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in retirement than you’re in now, a Roth IRA conversion may make sense for you. That’s because you’ll pay taxes on the money now at a lower rate, rather than paying them when you retire, when you expect your tax rate will be higher.

In addition, with a Roth IRA, you won’t have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) every year after the age of 73 as you would with a traditional IRA. Instead, the money can stay right in the account — where it may continue to grow — until it’s actually needed.

If your income is too high for you to be eligible for a Roth IRA, a Roth IRA conversion might be beneficial through a backdoor IRA. You will just need to put your funds into a traditional IRA first and pay the taxes on them.

Finally, if you won’t need the funds in your Roth IRA for at least five years, a conversion may also be worth considering.

Reasons Against

A Roth IRA conversion may not be the best fit for those who are nearing retirement and need their retirement savings to live on. In this case, you might not be able to recoup the taxes you’d need to pay for doing the conversion.

Additionally, if you receive Social Security or Medicare benefits, a Roth IRA conversion would increase your taxable income, which could increase the taxes you pay on Social Security. The cost of your Medicare benefits might also increase.

Those who don’t have the money readily available to pay the taxes required by the conversion should also think twice about an IRA conversion.

And if you expect to be in a lower tax bracket in retirement, a conversion also likely doesn’t make sense for you.

Finally, if you think you might need to withdraw funds from your account within five years, and you’re under age 59 ½, you could be subject to an early withdrawal penalty if you convert to a Roth IRA.

The Takeaway

A Roth IRA conversion may help individuals save on taxes because they can make qualified withdrawals tax-free withdrawals in retirement. For those who expect to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, a Roth IRA may be worth considering.

It’s important to be aware of the tradeoffs involved, especially the amount of taxes you might have to pay in order to do the conversion. Making the right decisions now can help you reach your financial goals as you plan and save for retirement.

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FAQ

How much tax do you pay on a Roth IRA conversion?

You pay tax on the money you convert, but the specific amount of tax you’ll pay depends on the marginal tax rate you’re in. Before doing a Roth IRA conversion, you may want to calculate to see if the funds you’re converting will put you into a higher tax bracket.

How many Roth iRA conversions are allowed per year?

There is no limit to the number of Roth conversions you can do in one year.

When is the deadline for Roth IRA conversions?

The deadline for a Roth IRA conversion is December 31 of the year you’re doing the conversion.

Is there a loophole for Roth IRA conversions?

A backdoor IRA might be considered a loophole for a Roth IRA conversion. Roth IRAs have contribution phase-out ranges, and individuals whose income exceeds those limits cannot contribute to a Roth fully or at all. However, a backdoor IRA may be a way to get around the income limits. To do it, you will need to have a traditional IRA that you convert to a Roth IRA.

How do I avoid taxes on Roth conversion?

You cannot avoid paying taxes on a Roth conversion. You must pay taxes on the money you convert.

How do you not lose money in a Roth IRA conversion?

To reduce the tax impact of a Roth IRA conversion, you may want to split the conversion into multiple conversions of smaller amounts over several years. If possible, try to do the conversions in years when your taxable income is lower.

Do you have to pay taxes immediately on Roth conversion?

Taxes on a Roth conversion are not due until the tax deadline of the following year.

Should a 65 year old do a Roth conversion?

It depends on an individual’s specific situation, but a Roth conversion may not make sense for a 65 year old if they need to live off their retirement savings or if they are receiving Social Security or Medicare benefits. A Roth IRA conversion could increase the taxes they pay on Social Security, and the cost of their Medicare benefits might rise.

Does a Roth conversion affect my Social Security?

It might. A Roth IRA conversion increases your taxable income, which could potentially increase the taxes you pay on Social Security.

Does a Roth conversion affect Medicare premiums?

A Roth IRA conversion may affect your Medicare premiums. Because it increases your taxable income, the cost of your Medicare benefits might increase as well.

What is the best Roth conversion strategy?

The best Roth conversion strategy depends on your particular situation, but in general, to help reduce your tax bill, you can aim to make the conversion in a year in which you expect your taxable income to be lower. You may also want to do multiple smaller conversions over several years, rather than one big conversion in one year, to help manage the taxes you owe.

Can you do Roth conversions after age 72?

Yes, you can do Roth conversions at any age. Some individuals may want to consider a Roth IRA conversion at 72 if they prefer to avoid paying the required minimum distributions (RMDs) for traditional IRAs that begin at age 73. If you convert before you turn 73, you will not be required to take RMDs.

How do I calculate my Roth conversion basis?

The concept of basis, or money that you’ve paid taxes on already, might be applicable if you’ve made non-deductible contributions to a tax-deferred retirement account. When you convert the money in that account, in order to calculate the percentage that’s tax-free, you need to divide your total nondeductible contributions by the end-of-year value of your IRA account plus the amount you’ve converting.

Do you have to wait 5 years for each Roth conversion?

No. There is no time limit for doing Roth conversions, and in fact, you can do as many as you like in one year. However, if you’re under age 59 ½, you do have to wait five years after each conversion to be able to withdraw money from the account without being subject to an early withdrawal penalty.


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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.

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