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Roth IRAs and their tax-free perks are pretty great—so great that in some scenarios, it can make sense to convert pre-tax dollars from traditional retirement accounts into post-tax dollars in a Roth IRA.

This is what’s known as a Roth conversion. You’re effectively taking those pre-tax funds and telling Uncle Sam you’d rather pay taxes on them now in exchange for the benefit of tax-free and penalty-free withdrawals in retirement.

And if you need the money earlier, the IRS requires only that you wait five years before withdrawing each conversion to avoid a 10% penalty.

So who do Roth conversions appeal to in particular? Four types of people:

High earners and the “backdoor” Roth conversion

Did you know the IRS restricts access to Roth IRAs based on income? Shut the front door!

Yes, if your income exceeds these eligibility limits, you can’t contribute directly to a Roth IRA. But as the saying goes, when one door closes, another door opens. A “backdoor,” more specifically.

So if you make too much money, fear not – you can contribute indirectly to a Roth IRA via a Roth conversion widely known as a “backdoor” Roth. This entails contributing post-tax dollars first to a traditional IRA, then converting those funds to a Roth IRA.

If you’ve never contributed to a traditional IRA before, pulling off a backdoor Roth can be simple, especially if you use Betterment. Open both a traditional and Roth IRA with us, fund the traditional, then convert those funds to your Roth IRA once they’ve settled. Done!

If you have any existing traditional IRA funds, however, things get a little more complicated due to something called the pro rata rule. In short, you need to move any pre-tax dollars out of your traditional IRA(s) into an employer-sponsored retirement account like a 401(k) before you can use the account as a backdoor. This gets even more complicated if you have both pre- and post-tax dollars mixed together in your traditional IRA(s).

Before going down the road of a backdoor Roth conversion, or any Roth conversion really, we highly recommend seeking the advice of a financial advisor, as well as a tax advisor in certain cases. They can help assess both your current situation and future projections.

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Recent retirees and unwelcome RMDs

The IRS doesn’t let you keep funds in your traditional retirement accounts indefinitely. They’re meant to be spent, after all.

So starting at age 73, annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from these accounts kick in. RMDs aren’t inherently a bad thing, but if your expenses can already be covered from other sources, RMDs will just raise your tax bill unnecessarily.

You can get ahead of this and lower your future amount of RMDs by converting traditional account funds to a Roth IRA before you reach RMD age. That’s because Roth IRAs are exempt from RMDs.

And as an added benefit, you’ll minimize taxes on Social Security benefits and Medicare premiums later on in retirement.

Just make sure you convert those funds before you turn 73, because once RMDs kick in, those amounts can’t be converted.

Early retirees and the Roth conversion “ladder”

If you want to retire early, even by “just” a few years, you very well might encounter a problem: Most of your retirement savings are tied up in tax-advantaged 401(k)s and IRAs, which slap you with a 10% penalty if you withdraw the funds before the age of 59 ½.

A few exceptions to this early withdrawal rule exist, the biggest for early retirees being that contributions to a Roth IRA (i.e., not the gains you may see on those contributions) can be withdrawn early without taxes or penalties, in this specific order:

  1. “Regular” contributions made directly to a Roth IRA. As an aside, you can always withdraw these funds tax-free and penalty-free without waiting five years.
  2. Once you’ve burned through regular contributions, the IRS allows you to withdraw contributions that were converted from traditional 401(k)s and traditional IRAs!

You won’t pay any additional taxes on these withdrawn contributions because taxes have already been paid. But withdrawn conversions (item #2 above) typically are still subject to a 10% penalty if withdrawn before 5 years. Think of this rule as a speed bump in an otherwise swift shortcut.

So what does all of this mean for early retirees? Starting five years before they plan on retiring, they can create a “ladder” looking something like the table below (note: dollar amounts are hypothetical). They convert funds each year, pay taxes on them at that time, then withdraw them five years later 10% penalty-free and sans any additional taxes.

Time

Amount converted

Amount withdrawn

Source of withdrawal

5 years pre-retirement

$40,000

$0

N/A

4 years pre-retirement

$40,000

$0

N/A

3 years pre-retirement

$40,000

$0

N/A

2 years pre-retirement

$40,000

$0

N/A

1 year pre-retirement

$40,000

$0

N/A

Retired early! 🎉

Year 1 of retirement

$40,000

$40,000

5 years pre-retirement

Year 2 of retirement

$40,000

$40,000

4 years pre-retirement

Year 3 of retirement

$40,000

$40,000

3 years pre-retirement

Year 4 of retirement

$40,000

$40,000

2 years pre-retirement

Year 5 of retirement

$40,000

$40,000

1 year pre-retirement

Etc.

Etc.

Etc.

Etc.

People experiencing temporary income dips

Say you find yourself staring at a significantly smaller income for the year. Maybe you lost your job. Maybe you work on commission and had a down year. Or maybe you had a big tax writeoff.

Whatever the reason, that dip in income means you’re currently in a lower tax bracket, and it may be wise to pay taxes on some of your pre-tax investments now at that lower rate compared to the higher rate when your income bounces back.


Watch out for potential Roth conversion pitfalls

Each of these scenarios requires careful tax planning, so again, we recommend working with a trusted financial advisor and/or tax advisor. They can help you avoid the most common Roth conversion mistakes and take full advantage of this post-tax money maneuver. Our CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professionals are here to offer on-demand guidance.

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