An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is a savings vehicle in which a deduction may be taken upon contribution (with limitations). The maximum contribution in 2021 is $6,000, and those age 50 and over may contribute an additional $1,000. While the assets are in the IRA, the income is not taxable. However, when distributions are taken in retirement, those distributions are included in taxable income.
A Roth IRA is almost the reverse of a traditional IRA. A taxpayer contributing to a Roth IRA does not get a deduction for the contribution. The earnings grow tax-free. And when the distributions come out, they are generally not taxable.
A taxpayer only qualifies to contribute to a Roth IRA if their taxable income is within certain limits. Married taxpayers filing a joint return may contribute the full amount if their income is below $198,000 in 2021. There is a phaseout and then the taxpayer cannot contribute anything if their income is $208,000 or higher. For an unmarried taxpayer, they may make a full Roth IRA contribution if their income is below $125,000 in 2021. There is a phaseout up to $140,000 and then no contribution is allowed.
While eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA depends upon the taxpayer’s taxable income, anyone may convert their IRA to a Roth IRA. When they do a conversion, the amount of the traditional IRA is income taxable.
Let’s look at a quick example: John normally has income of $300,000 per year. He was furloughed until 2022 due to the pandemic. He has no income in 2021. He has a traditional IRA of $50,000. He could convert his traditional IRA to a Roth IRA and would pay tax at relatively low rates since his income is lower in 2021.
If a taxpayer doesn’t qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA, they may be able to contribute to a traditional IRA (deductible or nondeductible) and then convert that IRA to a Roth IRA.
One of the key factors in converting (or contributing) to a Roth IRA is whether the tax rate at the time of conversion (or contribution) will be lower than the expected tax rate at the time of distribution.