Roth Conversions: When You Should Convert Your IRA or 401(k) to Roth?

Photo of a goldfish jumping from one fishbowl into another.Many Americans wonder when they should convert their traditional IRA or 401(k) to Roth? If you have a traditional IRA or 401(k), then that money grows tax-deferred BUT you pay tax on the money as it is drawn out at retirement. And that’s a big BUT. On the other hand, you get zero tax deduction on Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s but they grow and come out tax-free at retirement. What’s better? Well, in the end the Roth account is a much better deal as you’re pulling out what you put in AND the growth of the account after years of investing and saving. That’s likely a larger amount than what you put in so you’d typically be better paying tax on what you put in (or convert) rather than paying tax on the the larger sum that you will take out later. The trade-off of course, is you’re playing the long game. You’res kipping a tax deduction or paying tax now to convert in return for tax-free growth and tax-free distributions at retirement. The Roth seems to be the better deal. Yet, most Americans have been sucked into traditional IRAs and 401(k)s because we get a tax deduction when we put the money in a traditional account, saving us money on taxes now.

For more on the differences between Roth IRA and Roth 401(k), take a look at the video from my Partner Mark J. Kohler:

 

The good news is that you can convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, or your traditional 401(k) to a Roth 401(k). The price to make that conversion is including the amount you convert to Roth as taxable income for the year in which you make the conversion. So, if I convert $100K from my traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in 2018, I will take that $100K as income on my 2018 tax return, then pay any federal and state taxes on that income depending on my 2018 tax bracket. Many retirement account owners want to move their traditional funds to Roth, but don’t like the idea of paying additional taxes to do so. It can be a big tax hit when you do your taxes. I get it. Nobody likes paying more taxes now, even if it clearly saves you more as your account grows and the entire growth comes out tax-free.

Chunking Conversions

One way to soften the tax blow of the Roth conversion is to chunk the amount you want to convert over two or more years. For example, if you are at the end of the year in November 2018 and you want to convert $100K to Roth, you may decide to convert $100K by December 31, 2018  to have that taxed in the current year and then convert the remaining $50k on January 1, 2019 to have that amount taxed in 2019. This way, you don’t have as much of an income swing and it spreads the tax due over the two years. You could also do $33K each year to spread it out of 3 years.

Here are three cut-and-dry situations of when you should definitely convert your traditional IRA or 401(k) funds to Roth.

1. Up-Side Investment Opportunity – I’ve had numerous clients over the years convert their traditional funds to Roth before investing their account into a certain investment. They’ve done this because they’ve had a tremendous investment opportunity arise where they expect significant returns. They’d rather pay the tax on the smaller investment amounts now, so that the returns will go back into their Roth IRA or 401(k), where it can grow to an unlimited amount and come out tax-free. These clients have invested in real estate deals, start-ups, pre-IPOs, and other potentially lucrative investments. So, if you have an investment that you really believe in and will likely result in significant returns, then you’re far better off paying a little tax on the amount being invested before the account grows and returns a large profit. That way, the profit goes back into the Roth and the money becomes tax-free.

2. Low-Income Year – Another situation where you should covert traditional funds to Roth is when you have a low-income tax-year. Since the pain of the conversion is that you have to pay tax on the amount that you convert, you should convert when you are in a lower tax bracket to lessen the blow. For example, if you are married and have $75K of taxable income for the year and you decide to convert $50K to Roth, you will pay federal tax on that converted amount at a rate of 15% which would result in $7,500 in federal taxes. Keep in mind that you also pay state tax on the amount that you convert (if your state has state income tax), and most states have stepped brackets where you pay tax at a lower rate when you have lower income. If you instead converted when you were in a high-income year, let’s say $250K of income, then you’d pay federal tax on a $50K conversion at a rate of 33% which would result in federal taxes of $16,500. That’s more than twice the taxes due when you are in a lower-income year. Now, you may not have taxable income fluctuations. But, for those who are self-employed, change jobs and have a loss of income, or have investment losses where taxable income is lower than normal for a year, you should think about converting your retirement funds to Roth. You may not have a more affordable time to get to Roth.

3.Potential Need for a Distribution After Five Years – One of the perks of Roth accounts is that you can take out the funds that are contributed or converted after five years without paying tax or the early withdrawal penalty (even if you aren’t 59 1/2). For Roth conversions, the amount you convert can be distributed from the Roth account five years after the tax year in which you converted. The five-year clock starts to tick on January 1st of the tax year in which you convert, regardless of when you convert within the year. So, if you converted your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA in November 2018, then you could take a distribution of the amounts converted without paying tax or penalty on January 2nd, 2023. If you try to access funds in your traditional IRA or 401(k) before you are 59 1/2, then you will pay tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty even if the amounts you distribute are only the contributions you put in, not the investment gains. Clearly, the Roth account is much more accessible in the event you need personal funds. Keep in mind, you don’t get this perk immediately: You have to wait 5 years from the tax year in which you converted before you can take out the converted amount tax and penalty free.

One final thought to consider when converting to a Roth is that there are no do-overs. You used to be able to do what was called a Roth re-characterization where you could undo a Roth conversion but the ability to undo a Roth conversion was eliminated in 2018 forward. As a result, make sure you’re committed before you convert as there are no mulligans, do-overs, or re-characterizations anymore. Also, if you want the conversion to fall onto your 2018 or current year tax return, then make sure you convert those sums by December 31.

2018 Solo 401(k) Contribution Steps, Deadlines, and Rules

Image of a red thumbtack on the December 31 date of a calendar.As 2018 comes to an end, it is critical that Solo 401(k) owners understand when and how to make their 2018 contributions. There are three important deadlines you must know if you have a Solo 401(k) or if you plan to set one up still in 2018. A Solo 401(k) is a retirement plan for small business owners or self-employed persons who have no other full time employees other than owners and spouses. It’s a great plan that can be self-directed into real estate, LLCs, or other alternative investments, and allows the owner/participants to contribute up to $55,000 per year (far faster than any IRA).

New Solo 401(k) Set-Up Deadline is 12/31/18

First, in order to make 2018 contributions, the Solo 401(k) must be adopted by your business by December 31st, 2018. If you haven’t already adopted a Solo 401(k) plan, you should start now so that documents can be completed and filed in time. If the 401(k) is established on January 1st, 2019 or later, you cannot make 2018 contributions.

2018 Contributions Can Be Made in 2019

Both employee and employer contributions can be made up until the company’s tax return deadline including extensions. If you have a sole proprietorship (e.g. single member LLC or schedule C income) or C-Corporation, then the company tax return deadline is April 15th, 2018. If you have an S-Corporation or partnership LLC, the deadline for 2018 contributions is March 15th, 2019. Both of these deadlines (March 15th and April 15th) to make 2018 contributions may be extended another six months by filing an extension. This a huge benefit for those that want to make 2018 contributions, but won’t have funds until later in the year to do so.

W-2’s Force You to Plan Now

While employee and employer contributions may be extended until the company tax return deadline, you will typically need to file a W-2 for your wages (e.g. an S-Corporation) by January 31st, 2019. The W-2 will include your wage income and any deduction for employee retirement plan contributions will be reduced on the W-2 in box 12. As a result, you should make your employee contributions (up to $18,500 for 2018) by January 31st, 2019 or you should at least determine the amount you plan to contribute so that you can file an accurate W-2 by January 31st, 2019. If you don’t have all or a portion of the funds you plan to contribute available by the time your W-2 is due, you can set the amount you plan to contribute to the 401(k) as an employee contribution, and will then need to make said contribution by the tax return deadline (including extensions).

Example

Now let’s bring this all together and take an example to outline how this may work. Sally is 44 years old and has an S-Corporation as an online business. She is the only owner and only employee, and had a Solo 401(k) established in 2018. She has $120,000 in net income for the year and will have taken $50,000 of that in wage income that will go on her W-2 for the year. That will leave $70,000 of profit that is taxable to her and that will come through to her personally via a K-1 from the business. Sally has not yet made any 2018 401(k) contributions, but plans to do so in order to reduce her taxable income for the year and to build a nest egg for retirement. If she decided to max-out her 2018 Solo 401(k) contributions, it would look like this:

  1. Employee Contributions – The 2018 maximum employee contribution is $18,500. This is dollar for dollar on wages so you can contribute $18,500 as long as you have made $18,500. Since Sally has $50,000 in wages from her S-Corp, she can easily make an $18,500 employee contribution. Let’s say that Sally doesn’t have the $18,500 to contribute, but will have it available by the tax return deadline (including extensions). What Sally will need to do is let her accountant or payroll company know what she plans to contribute as an employee contribution so that they can properly report the contributions on her payroll and W-2 reporting. By making an $18,500 employee contribution, Sally has reduced her taxable income on her W-2 from $50,000 to $31,500. At even a 20% tax bracket for federal taxes and a 5% tax bracket for state taxes that comes to a tax savings of $4,625.
  1. Employer Contributions – The 2018 maximum employer contribution is 25% of wage compensation. For Sally: Up to a maximum employer contribution of $36,500. Since Sally has taken a W-2 wage of $50,000, the company may make an employer contribution of $12,500 (25% of $50,000). This contribution is an expense to the company and is included as an employee benefit expense on the S-Corporation’s tax return (form 1120S). In the stated example, Sally would’ve had $70,000 in net profit/income from the company before making the Solo 401(k) contribution. After making the employer matching contribution of $12,500 in this example, Sally would then only receive a K-1 and net income/profit from the S-Corporation of $57,500. Again, if she were in a 20% federal and a 5% state tax bracket, that would create a tax savings of $3,125. This employer contribution would need to be made by March 15th, 2019 (the company return deadline) or by September 15th, 2019 if the company were to file an extension.

In the end, Sally would have contributed and saved $31,000 for retirement ($18,500 employee contribution, $12,500 employer contribution). And she would have saved approximately $7,750 in federal and state taxes. That’s a win-win.

Keep in mind, you need to start making plans now and you want to begin coordinating with your accountant or payroll company as your yearly wage information on your W-2 (self employment income for sole props) is critical in determining what you can contribute to your Solo 401(k). Also, make certain you have the plan set-up in 2018 if you plan to make 2018 contributions. While IRAs can be established until April 15th, 2019 for 2018 contributions, a Solo K must be established by December 31st, 2018. Don’t get the two confused, and make sure you’ve got a plan for your specific business.

Note: If you’ve got a single member LLC taxed as a sole proprietorship, or just an old-fashioned sole prop, or even or an LLC taxed as a partnership (where you don’t have a W-2), then please refer to our prior article here on how to calculate your Solo K contributions as they differ slightly from the s-corp example above.

The IRS Says That You Can Contribute More to Your IRA and 401(k) in 2019

Late last week, the IRS announced increased contribution limits for IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement plans. IRAs have been stuck at $5,500 since 2013, but are finally moving up to $6,000 starting in 2019. If you save in a 401(k), including a Solo K, the good news is that your contribution limits were increased too, with employee contributions increasing from $18,500 to $19,000 and total 401(k) contributions (employee and employer) reaching $56,000. The IRS announcement and additional details can be found here.

Health savings account (HSA) owners also won a small victory with individual contribution maximums increasing by $50 to $3,500, and family contribution amounts increasing by $100 to $7,000.

Breakdown

Here’s a quick breakdown on the changes:

  • IRA contribution limitations (Roth and Traditional) increased from $5,500 to $6,000, and there is still the $1,000 catch-up amount for those 50 and older.
  • 401(k) contributions also increased for employees and employers: Employee contribution limitations increased from $18,500 to $19,000 for 2019. The additional catch-up contribution for those 50 and older stays the same at $6,000. The annual maximum 401(k) (defined contribution) total contribution amount increased from $55,000 to $56,000 ($62,000 for those 50 and older).
  • HSA contribution limits increased from $3,450 for individuals and $6,900 for families to $3,500 for individuals and $7,000 for families.

These accounts provide advantageous ways for an individual to either save for retirement or to pay for their medical expenses. If you’re looking for tax deductions, tax deferred growth, or tax-free income, you should be using one or all of these account types. Keep in mind there are qualifications and phase out rules that apply, so make sure you’re getting competent advice about which accounts should be set up in your specific situation. Lastly, remember, all of these accounts can be self-directed and invested into assets you know best.

DISTRIBUTIONS FROM YOUR RETIREMENT ACCOUNT: THE TOP TEN LIST

I’m routinely asked questions about what taxes and rules apply when a distribution occurs from a retirement account. Here are the top ten rules you should know about distributions from retirement accounts.

The First 5 Facts Apply to Traditional IRA and 401(k) Accounts.

1. Early Withdrawal Penalty. A distribution from a traditional IRA or 401(k) before the account owner reaches 59 1/2 causes a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the amount distributed. This is in addition to taxes owed on the amount distributed. So, for example, if you take a $10,000 distribution from your traditional IRA at age 45 then you will be subject to a $1,000 penalty and you will also receive a 1099-R from your IRA custodian and will need to report $10,000 of income on your tax returns. Once you reach age 59 1/2, the 10% early withdrawal penalty does not apply.

2. Required Minimum Distributions. Whether you need the money or not, at age 70 1/2, the IRS requires a traditional IRA or 401(k) owner (unless still employed by employer 401(k)) to begin taking distributions from their retirement account. These distributions are subject to tax and the account owner will receive a 1099-R of the amount distributed that will be included on their tax return. The amount of the distribution is based on the person’s age and the account’s value. For example, someone with a $100K IRA who has turned 70 1/2 and is taking their first RMD would take $3,639 (3.79%).

3. Avoid Taking Large Distributions In One-Year. Because distributions from traditional retirement accounts are subject to tax at the time of distribution, it is wise to avoid taking too much in one year as a large distribution can push your distribution income and your other income into a higher tax bracket. For example, if you have  employment and or rental/investment income of $50,000 annually then you are in a joint income tax bracket of 15% on additional income. However, if you take $100,000 as a lump-sum that year this will push your annual income to $150K and you will be in a 28% income tax bracket. If you could instead break up that $100K over two tax years then you could stay in 15% to 25% tax bracket and could reduce your overall tax liability. In short, only pull out what you need when you need it to lesson the immediate year’s tax liability.

4. Distribution Withholding. Most distributions from an employer 401(k) or pension plan (including solo K), before the age of 59 1/2, will be subject to a 20% withholding that will be sent to the IRS in anticipation of tax and penalty that will be owed. In the case of an early distribution from an IRA, a 10% withholding for the penalty amount can be made but you can also elect out of this automatic withholding provided you make an estimated tax payment or that you will otherwise be current on your tax liability.

5. If You Have Tax Losses, Consider Converting to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k). When you have tax losses on your tax return you may want to consider using those losses to offset income that would arise when you convert a traditional IRA or 401(k) to a Roth account. Whenever you convert a traditional account to a Roth account, you must pay tax on the amount of the conversion. In the end though, you’ll have a Roth account that grows entirely tax-free and that you don’t pay taxes on when you distribute the money. Using the losses when they are available is a good way to get your Traditional retirement funds over to Roth.

The Final 5 Rules are For Roth IRAs and Roth 401(k)s.

1. Roth IRAs Are Exempt from RMD. While traditional IRA owners must take required minimum distributions (“RMD”) when the account owner reaches age 70 1/2, Roth IRAs are exempt from RMD rules. That’s a great perk and allows you to keep your money invested as long as possible.

2. Roth 401(k)s Must Take RMD. Roth 401(k) designated accounts are subject to RMD. This is a confusing rule since Roth IRAs are NOT subject to RMD. Such is the tax code. How can you avoid this?  Simply roll your Roth 401(k) funds over to a Roth IRA when you reach 70 1/2.

3. Distributions of Contributions Are Always Tax-Free. Distributions of contributions to a Roth IRA are always tax-free. Regardless of age, you can always take a distribution of your Roth IRA contributions without penalty or tax.

4. Distributions of Roth IRA Earnings. In order to take a tax-free distribution from a Roth IRA, you must be age 59 1/2 or older and you must have had a Roth IRA for five years or longer. As long as those two criteria are met, all amounts (contributions and earnings) may be distributed from a Roth IRA tax free. If your funds in the Roth IRA are from a conversion, then you must have converted the funds at least 5 years ago and must be 59 1/2 or older in order to take a tax-free distribution.

5. Delay Roth Distributions. Roth retirement accounts are the most tax efficient way to earn income in the U.S. As a result, it is best to distribute and use other funds and assets that are at your disposal before using the funds built up in your Roth account as those funds aren’t as tax efficient while invested.

By: Mat Sorensen, Attorney and Author of The Self Directed IRA Handbook

Precious Metals Rules For Your Solo 401(k)

Self-directed 401(k) owners, companies in the industry, and many professionals have been confused on what rules, if any, govern when buying precious metals with a self-directed 401(k). There is a code section in IRC 408(m) that outlines what metals can be owned by a self-directed IRA and how they should be stored. I have an article that summarized those here. However, this section of the code is written for IRAs and many have questioned whether it should be applied to 401(k) accounts as well? The short answer is, yes, and here are two reasons why.

I. Most Solo K Plan Documents Adopt IRC 408(m).

Most 401(k) plans, including Solo 401(k)s, adopt IRC 408(m), which specify which precious metals your Solo K may own and provides a storage requirement. Since the plan documents restrict what precious metals your 401(k) may own, all accounts under the plan most follow the plan rules. Many may wonder, well can’t I just amend my 401(k) plan? Not exactly. Most Solo K plans are volume-submitter IRS pre-approved plans and take years to create and get approved with the IRS. A change requires approval from the provider of those plans and they’d have to change it for all their customers. This isn’t likely to occur, especially given point two below.

II. The IRS Wants Your Solo (k) to Follow the IRA Precious Metals Rule.

The IRS has issued guidance to 401(k) plans that are individually directed and has stated that the rules of IRC 408(m) should be followed when a 401(k) account purchases precious metals. To view the IRS analysis, check out their resource page here.

Consequently, Solo 401(k) owners buying precious metals should follow the IRA rules for precious metals and should only buy qualifying gold, silver, platinum, or palladium, and should make sure that such metals are stored with a third party qualifying institution (bank, credit union, or trust company).