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Should You Convert to a Roth IRA?

Should you convert all or a portion of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth account? The answer may depend on the amount of time you plan to leave the assets invested, your estate planning strategies, and your willingness to pay the federal income tax bill that a conversion is likely to trigger.

Two Types of IRAs

Each type of IRA has its own specific rules and potential benefits. These differences are summarized in the table below.

Conversion: Potential Benefits . . .

Potential benefits of converting from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA include:

  • A larger sum to bequeath to heirs. Since lifetime RMDs are not required for Roth IRAs, investors who do not need to take withdrawals may leave the money invested as long as they choose which may result in a larger balance for heirs. After an account owner's death, beneficiaries must take required minimum distributions, although different rules apply to spouses and nonspouses.

  • Tax-free withdrawals. Even if retirees need withdrawals for living expenses, withdrawals are tax free for those who are age 59½ or older and who have had the money invested for five years or more.

. . . As Well as a Potential Drawback

  • Taxes upon conversion. Investors who convert proceeds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA are required to pay income taxes at the time of conversion on investment earnings and any contributions that qualified for a tax deduction. If you have a nondeductible traditional IRA (i.e., your contributions did not qualify for a tax deduction because your income was not within the parameters established by the IRS), investment earnings will be taxed, but the amount of your contributions will not. The conversion will not trigger the 10% additional tax for early withdrawals.

Which Is Right for You?

If you have a traditional IRA and are considering converting to a Roth IRA, here are a few factors to consider:

  • A conversion may be more attractive the further you are from retirement. The longer your earnings can remain invested, the more time you have to help compensate for the associated tax bill.

  • Your current and future tax brackets will affect which IRA is best for you. If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, sticking with a traditional IRA could be the best option because your RMDs during retirement will be taxed at a correspondingly lower rate than amounts converted today. On the other hand, if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket, the ability to take tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA could be an attractive benefit.

There is no easy answer to the question "Should I convert my traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA?" As with any major financial consideration, careful consultation with a financial professional is a good idea before you make your choice.


1-IRA account holders (both traditional and Roth) may avoid the 10% additional federal tax on withdrawals before age 59½ only if they meet specific criteria established by the IRS. See Publication 590-A for more information.



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