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Ask the Expert: Convert $20,000 a year to Roth IRA?

I’ll be 59 1/2 years old this year, and I have a large amount in my IRA. Is it to my benefit to convert $20,000 a year to a Roth IRA until I’m 70? I know $20,000 of annual IRA withdrawals won’t be subject to New York State income tax. Also, money in a Roth IRA earns a tax-free return. What are your thoughts?

This is a strategy worth considering for anyone who is between 59 1/2 and 70 years old and has substantial tax-deferred retirement savings. By reducing your tax-deferred accounts, a series of Roth conversions trims the size of the taxable required minimum distributions (RMDs) you’ll have to take after turning 70 1/2.

If you have a lot of money in tax-deferred retirement accounts, you may find your annual RMDs exceed your living expenses — and during a bear market, being required to take big distributions may force you to sell investments at a loss, which makes it harder for your portfolio to recover when the market does.

By contrast, a Roth IRA has no RMDs; and Roth withdrawals are tax- and penalty-free after you’re 59 1/2 and have owned the account for five years.

Roth conversions are less expensive after age 59 1/2 because that’s when New Yorkers start getting a state tax exemption on $20,000 of annual retirement account distributions. But consult your tax accountant about how much to convert every year. The amount you move from a traditional IRA to a Roth is federally taxable, and you don’t want a conversion to push you into a higher tax bracket. If that happens, however, you have until Oct. 15, 2017, to undo a 2016 conversion, amending your return if necessary.

THE BOTTOM LINE Small annual Roth IRA conversions can be a smart tax strategy for people between 59 1/2 and 70 years old.


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