__Background__

****Note to readers: On Sunday, December 16, an astute Seeking Alpha reader pointed out an issue with my analysis. After checking my spreadsheets, I determined that he was correct. In my original analysis, I start removing $30k from the accounts to live on. I index this number for 3% inflation throughout retirement. As I take the money from income and RMDs, I correctly tax the withdrawals. However, as the reader pointed out, I should be taking more pre-tax money from the conventional IRA so that the after tax amount gets me to parity with the amount I withdrawal from the Roth IRA. So, to get $30,000 for expenses from the conventional IRA, I need to withdrawal approximately $45,600. This reduces the value of the conventional IRA, and leaves less excess cash for reinvestment into a standard taxable account.**

**This change in the comparison effects case 1 most strongly; The conventional IRA is still more valuable up to age 85, but the Roth IRA growth far outpaces the conventional IRA from that point onward. Case 2 and Case 3 change slightly, but the outcomes and graphs remain very close to the originals.**

**I've replaced the conventional IRA spreadsheet with a revised version, and the Case 1 table and graph.**

**My conclusions and summary remain the same, but I thought it important that I show the proper data in case 1.**

**Sorry for the inconvenience!**

While reading through some great articles on Seeking Alpha, the comments turned to conversion of an IRA to a Roth. I was not aware that the laws had changed to allow creation of a Roth with converted IRA funds.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), our "married filing jointly" income exceeds the IRS limits for contribution to a Roth, so we don't currently have one. Over the years, having worked at several large firms, I've been rolling my 401k plans into a conventional IRA, which is growing nicely. After learning that a conversion was now possible, and reading some helpful comments on SA, I decided to consult with my accountant. Here is the gist of what I learned, though please keep in mind, I am far from expert regarding IRAs and tax rules.

In 2010, congress made it possible for those previously not eligible for a Roth IRA, to convert IRA proceeds to a Roth. Due to income restrictions, I cannot openly contribute to a Roth, but I can convert a portion or all of my conventional IRA to a Roth. The catch, of course, is taxes. My IRA was funded entirely with pre-tax earnings from 401k contributions, thus, I need to pay federal and state income tax on any portion I choose to convert.

There are many attractive features of a Roth IRA, and I'd like to have one (whoa, I sound like one of my children). They aren't taxed when you withdrawal money after age 59 1/2, and you aren't forced to take money out starting at age 70 1/2, the dreaded "required minimum distribution" or RMD in a conventional IRA. After you die, your Roth IRA can be passed along to your heirs without a tax hit.

Back to the question of should I convert my IRA? The answer is far from simple. There are many factors, and modeling them all (which I've attempted to do) is pretty cumbersome. Age today, age when you plan to retire, income needs in retirement, tax bracket today, tax bracket with proceeds you are converting, tax rate when you retire, % of IRA funded with non deductible contributions; well, you get the picture. I've found some calculators online and played with them, but I don't know the assumptions used and get differing numbers on different sites. Thus, I decided to build a spreadsheet and model some scenarios myself.

__Analysis__

__Changing numbers to protect my privacy, let's say I've managed to accumulate a conventional IRA worth around $200k at age 48. I'm going to look at three different options for conversion:__

- Convert $15k per year until I retire at age 65
- Convert $100k per year over two years
- Convert $100k in one year, then stop

Taxes on the converted amounts will follow my current marginal tax rates of 33% federal, and an onerous 9.3% state (in my sunny state). Care needs to be taken with the amount converted in any one year that the income doesn't put you into a new higher tax bracket, further damaging returns. The schedule below shows today's federal tax brackets:

I'll be comparing these four options to my conventional IRA, which, at age 70.5, will require minimum distributions every year. I'll assume a reduced marginal federal tax rate of 25% and the same state rate of 9.3% for these distributions, and will re-invest them into a standard taxable brokerage account. For you lucky dogs living in low tax red states, I'll also look at a comparison with no state taxes.

I'll assume that both my current conventional IRA, and the taxable account I create with the RMDs after age 70, will have the same pre-tax performance; 6% growth in share price, 3% portfolio yield, and of course, dividends will grow every year by 6%.

I'll be comparing these four options to my conventional IRA, which, at age 70.5, will require minimum distributions every year. I'll assume a reduced marginal federal tax rate of 25% and the same state rate of 9.3% for these distributions, and will re-invest them into a standard taxable brokerage account. For you lucky dogs living in low tax red states, I'll also look at a comparison with no state taxes.

I'll assume that both my current conventional IRA, and the taxable account I create with the RMDs after age 70, will have the same pre-tax performance; 6% growth in share price, 3% portfolio yield, and of course, dividends will grow every year by 6%.

First, a look at my projections for the conventional IRA:

Conventional IRA for Comparison |

To keep it simple, I'm not adding any money to the IRA. Further, dividends are reinvested until age 70, then used to fund a new taxable account with the "required minimum distributions." At age 65, I start withdrawing cash for living expenses. I assume I'll need $30,000 growing 3% per year to cover inflation. However, I need after tax dollars, so I need to withdrawal more when you consider federal and state taxation.

**The "Pre Tax Needed" and "Shortfall or Excess" columns do this**calculation and shows how much is either needed via sales of shares, or in excess available for reinvestment. I realize this is not enough to live on, but for this analysis, I'm assuming I will have additional sources of income for retirement expenses.

At age 70.5, I need to start pulling out the "required minimum distribution" or RMD. The formula for required minimum distribution is based on the number of years the government thinks you will continue to live. You take your assets in the IRA on December 31, then divide by the number of years you have left according to the handy table below:

From the RMD proceeds at age 70 1/2 and beyond, is born the new taxable dividend growth portfolio. To further complicate matters, only income from IRA dividends can be reinvested into the IRA, while excess RMD cannot (don't tax rules make life fun?). So, excess RMD leaves the fund and goes into the new taxable account, and excess income from IRA dividends, in excess of the RMD and what I withdrawal to live on, stay in the fund for reinvestment, and are not subject to taxation. Using the same continued assumptions for growth, but now using after tax (federal + state) RMD and after tax dividends for reinvestment, I constructed a taxable dividend growth account similar to the IRA, it's shown below:

Taxable Account from RMD Excess |

Now to the Roth conversion. For this part of the analysis, I take the same IRA as in the first chart above to start, then pull uniform distributions out every year. Per my assumptions, I'll take the $15,000 per year, pay taxes on these funds, and create a Roth IRA based on dividend growth stocks (of course). For purposes of these analyses, I'm going to pay the taxes with money held elsewhere in a taxable account, to allow more money into the Roth and avoid any penalties while under the age of 59.5. So to recap, I'm comparing my IRA + a taxable account that starts with $100,000 in it and grows by the excess RMD payments in retirement

__versus__a conventional IRA with funds pulled out until retirement for conversion into a Roth IRA + a taxable account with $100,000 from which I will pay the necessary income taxes during the conversion years. Wow, just explaining the planned analysis gets confusing!

Next is the IRA from which I'm converting funds:

Case 1 IRA less Converted Funds |

Interestingly, even converting $15,000 each year until age 65, the portfolio manages to grow modestly. After the conversions stop at age 65, the IRA grows more rapidly until RMDs kick in at age 70.5. Conversions out of this account and into the Roth IRA are fully taxed, both Federal & State, then grow and re-invest tax free forever, with no taxes due when the proceeds are withdrawn. The associated Roth IRA that I've created from the above conventional IRA looks like this:

Roth IRA Built with Converted Funds |

At age 65, I start withdrawing $30,000 per year, growing 3% per year, to help with living expenses. And because this is a Roth, I get the money tax free! Further, because there is still IRA money left growing, I'll need to pay RMDs again at age 70.5. Those monies will go back into the taxable account from which I paid the IRA conversion taxes. The $100k taxable account from which taxes were paid, and into which RMD payments are going, is shown below:

$100k Taxable Account Tied to Roth |

__Analysis Results__

__The table and chart below summarize the results of the first analysis, case 1. Total account value and annual income for the two account types are presented at different ages:__

Case 1 Results |

In the second analysis, case 2, I convert money more quickly. $100k per year over two years. The tax hit will be high, but the money in the Roth IRA will have more time to grow. Here is the case 2 data summary:

Case 2 Graph |

For my third case, I'm converting $100k in the first year, then stopping the conversions, and letting both the original IRA and converted Roth grow. Here is the summary table:

Case 3 Results |

Case 3 Graph |

The other big factor in all of these cases is your State of residence. If you live in a low, or no tax red state, the analysis gets more favorable for a conversion. As in case 1, I repeated this analysis for 0% state taxes vs. the 9.3% in the graph above, and the results get even closer to even. The graph for the 0% state tax is below:

__Thoughts and Conclusions__

- At my current age of 48, keeping my money in a tax deferred IRA seems a better choice than converting any or all to a Roth IRA.
- The best result came from case 3, converting only 1/2 of my IRA, and then heading into retirement with three accounts; a conventional IRA, a Roth IRA, and a taxable dividend growth account.
- At age 65, the converted Roth IRA fund value and income will always be lower than the IRA due to the taxes paid upon converting.
- The Roth IRA really "shines" vs. the conventional IRA once you are retired and withdrawing funds. Less money comes out, and more is available for reinvestment vs. the conventional IRA, due to taxes.
- High state income taxes hurt the argument for conversion.
- Minimizing tax loss when converting, and preserving capital with time for growth are the most relevant factors.
- Paying taxes out of the funds you are converting is a bad idea. If you are younger than 59.5, a 10% penalty is due in addition to state and federal taxes.
- Our government seems to be the biggest beneficiary of a conversion.

__Summary__

The decision to convert funds from an existing conventional IRA to a Roth IRA are effected by myriad variables. Age, tax rates, amount planned for conversion, income required in retirement, and how long you "plan" to live, all play a big role in the analysis. From the "not so simple" analysis above, I'm leaning toward doing nothing. Just sticking with my current IRA and taxable stock account. That said, the thing I like about case three, or converting a portion of my IRA to a Roth IRA, is tax policy diversification. It seems reasonable to assume we can't know what changes to tax policy we'll see in the next thirty years or more. Having three types of retirement accounts versus two might be beneficial depending on how our laws change in the future.

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