Tax-deferred savings (to an IRA or employer pre-tax retirement plan) reduce your tax liability today BUT are fully taxable (including gains) on withdrawal. The tax-deferral accounts are an excellent way to minimize your current taxable income. The goal is to use what would have been tax dollars as part of your savings. The main rules to keep in mind are that withdrawals shouldn’t be expected before age 59.5 AND that you MUST take mandated distributions (called RMD) when you reach age 72 (according to the new tax rules). Unfortunately, these accounts are now also not inherited in the same beneficial manner as in the past (these now follow the new Secure Act of 2019 rules).
A Roth on the other hand, doesn’t provide tax deferral when saved but it does provide tax-free dollars, on withdrawal. Contributions to a Roth are limited in amounts each year and not easily available for high earners. Whereas Roth conversions require income tax payment on converting pre-tax IRA dollars, not everyone is permitted to make Roth conversions. Fortunately, Roth IRAs are not impacted by the Secure Act of 2019 and remain free of RMD. They are also still inherited tax-free to individual or trust beneficiaries and are likely to be favored for those considering leaving a legacy.
As income tax rises (likely, given our debt load), Roth accounts will become even more powerful tools in retirement for those in the higher tax brackets. Currently they help us regulate your taxable income and keep taxes and Medicare costs reasonable during retirement.
We’d like to consider Roth conversions for you in years when you expect a lower tax rate. It is particularly useful when tax-deferred accounts are undervalued and when you have accumulated large tax-deferred accounts.
The basic takeaway is that a tax-deferred account should be maximized during years with high earnings (to reduce taxes) and high tax rates. When you expect a low earning year then a Roth conversion may provide you with an ideal situation BUT ONLY IF your retirement tax rate is expected to be high enough to trigger additional taxes or Medicare costs.
Edi Alvarez, CFP®
BS, BEd, MS