A Roth IRA conversion may be right for you if your income is too high to contribute to a Roth IRA outright ($140,000 and up for individuals in 2021; $208,000 and up for married couples filing jointly). With this strategy, you convert all or part of your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA and pay regular income taxes on the converted amount.
It may seem counterintuitive to pay taxes now that you could put off until later, but doing so will allow you to take advantage of a Roth IRA's main benefit: tax-free withdrawals of contributions and earnings in retirement (so long as you’re age 59½ or older and have held the account for at least five years).
"It's an attractive option for individuals who believe their tax rate may be higher in retirement, or for those who just want the flexibility that tax-free income provides," says Rob Williams, managing director of financial planning at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "And, unlike tax-deferred retirement accounts, Roth IRAs aren’t subject to required minimum distributions beginning at age 72."
If you think a Roth IRA conversion might be right for you, Rob points to three tax-efficient strategies:
- Max out your bracket: Let's say you’re single and make $145,000 a year, which puts you in the 24% tax bracket. The next bracket doesn't kick in until your income exceeds $164,925, so you could convert $19,925 ($164,925 – $145,000) and still stay within your current bracket.
- Spread it out: Breaking up the conversion across multiple years can make the tax hit easier to manage—and could, when combined with the strategy above, reduce the overall tax you pay on the conversion.1
- Get ahead of tax changes: If upcoming changes to tax law will adversely affect future taxes, converting some or all of your traditional IRA in the year preceding the change could help you avoid paying more tax on the conversion than necessary.
In any case, you may want to wait until the end of the year to perform the conversion. "That way, you can account for any year-end changes to your total taxable income,” Rob says.
1For savers younger than 59½, each conversion must be held for at least five years to be eligible for penalty-free withdrawals of the conversion principal.