Should You Convert to a Roth IRA?

Ask yourself these five questions to determine whether you should move your money from a traditional IRA to a Roth.

What do I need to consider when deciding whether it’s worthwhile to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth?

You need to ask yourself five key questions before you move your money to a Roth IRA:

1. Can you afford to pay the tax on the conversion with money from outside your IRA?You must pay taxes on the amount in a traditional IRA (except for any nondeductible contributions you have made) that you convert to a Roth, but then you’ll be able to access the money in the Roth -- including all future earnings -- tax-free in retirement.

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The conversion won’t be as good a deal, though, if you need to tap the account to come up with the cash. Any money you withdraw now to pay the tax bill won’t be around to produce that glorious tax-free income. Plus, if you’re younger than 59½ when you pull the money out to pay the tax, you’ll be hit with a 10% penalty . . . on top of tax on the withdrawal in your top bracket. One benefit of converting in 2010 is that you can delay paying the tax until you file your returns for 2011 and 2012 (split evenly over those two years), giving you extra time to save for the bill.

See FAQs on the New Roth Conversion Rules for more information about the tax bill.

2. Do you expect to be in a higher tax bracket in the future?

If you do, a Roth IRA is an easy decision: You pay the taxes at your lower bracket now and take the money out tax-free later, dodging the higher tax bill that would otherwise apply at that time. It’s particularly valuable to convert to a Roth now if your income is unusually low -- if, for example, you were unemployed for part of the year -- so you’ll pay the taxes at a lower rate.

Although you can pay the tax on conversions made in 2010 over 2011 and 2012, you also have the option of paying it in full when you file your return for 2010, which could make sense if you expect your tax bracket to be lower this year than it will be in the following two years. Just remember that money you convert will be added to your other income for the year, which could push you into a higher tax bracket.

See What You Need to Know About Roth Conversions for more information about making the switch.

3. Will you need your IRA money in retirement, or do you think you’ll be able pass most of it on to your heirs?

Converting to a Roth IRA can be a particularly good deal if you won’t need to tap the account for your retirement expenses every year. Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs never force you to take required minimum distributions, and heirs inherit the money income-tax free. (Those who inherit traditional IRAs must pay tax on withdrawals in their top tax brackets.)

4. How long do you plan to keep the money in the account?

The longer you keep the money in the account, the more you can benefit from tax-free growth. See The Complexities of Roth Conversions for more information about the calculations that can help you decide whether a Roth is right for you, especially if you’re retired now or expect to retire soon.

5. Do you plan to pay college bills soon?

Converting to a Roth increases your taxable income for the year of the conversion -- or for 2011 and 2012 if you make a 2010 conversion and choose to spread the tax bill over those years. That could affect your child’s ability to qualify for financial aid. See The Impact of Roth Conversions on Financial Aid. If this is a potential problem, you may want to delay your conversion until after your child’s junior year in college, when the extra income won’t affect your family’s aid award.

For more information about Roth conversions, see our Roth Conversions for Everyone special report.

Kimberly Lankford
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.