Convert to a Roth 401k

Fiscal Cliff Tax Break for Your 401(k)

Good news for the millions of Americans with 401(k) plans – you can convert to a Roth 401(k) at any time. Buried in the Fiscal Cliff bill was a big break – you can now convert your 401(k), 403(b) and other defined contribution plans to a Roth at any time.

In previous years, you could convert your 401(k) to a Roth only if you changed jobs, retired, or turned 59 ½. Now, you can convert to a Roth at any time on the same terms as an IRA. In other words, 401(k)s and IRAs are on a level playing field when converting to Roth tax status.

The tax differences between a 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) are simple enough. With a traditional 401(k) you deduct contributions as they are made and pay taxes when you take distributions (tax deferred). With a Roth 401(k) you do not get a deduction when you make the contribution and your 401(k) grows tax free (tax exempt). Note that tax free principal and growth in a Roth 401(k) still requires that the funds be invested for at least 5 years and can’t be withdrawn until you reach age 59½.

The other major differences between a 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) are the contribution levels. For 2013, those under 50 can contribute $17,000 and those 50 and over can contribute $22,500 to a 401(k). The most you can place in a Roth 401(k) is $5,000 if you are under 50 and $6,000 if you are 50+. Additionally, Roth IRA contributions are prohibited when taxpayers earn a Modified Adjusted Gross Income of more than $110,000, ($160,000 for married filing jointly). For other issues, such as catch-up contributions, click here for the IRS website.

Employers are permitted to make matching contributions on their employees’ designated Roth 401(k). However, these contributions do not receive the Roth tax treatment. The matching contributions are allocated to a pre-tax account, just as matching contributions to a traditional 401(k). So, employer contributions are tax deferred, not tax exempt.

Here are a few other considerations when converting to a Roth 401(k):

  • Roth 401(k) contributions are irrevocable. Once money is invested into a Roth 401(k) account, it cannot be moved to a traditional 401(k) account. This means there are no mulligans when you convert to a Roth 401(k). The Fiscal Cliff legislation does not allow for an in-plan recharacterization – the ability to undue the conversion. If you convert and lose your job, or the bottom falls out of the market, you are stuck paying the taxes.
  • Employees may roll their Roth 401(k) contributions over to a Roth IRA account upon changing jobs or retiring.
  • Not all employers offer the Roth 401(k). Many smaller companies may feel that the added administrative burden is just too costly.
  • Unlike Roth IRAs, owners of Roth 401(k) accounts must begin distributions upon reaching age 70 ½, similar to required minimum distributions for IRA and other retirement plans.

So, now that you can convert, should you? For a related article, please see my comments on why Expats should convert to a Roth ASAP. I note this was written in 2012 when tax rates were guaranteed to go up (5% short term capital gains increase, etc.).

A Roth 401(k) plan will probably be most advantageous to those who might otherwise choose a Roth IRA – for example, younger workers who are currently taxed in a lower tax bracket, but expect to be taxed in a higher bracket upon reaching retirement age. Higher-income workers near the Roth IRA income limits may prefer a traditional 401(k).

Another consideration is your views on the future of income tax rates in the U.S. If you believe taxes will continue to rise, then paying taxes now through a Roth 401(k) may be preferred. If you are an optimist, and hope tax rates will go down, then deferring taxation through a traditional 401(k) might be your bet. As I wrote in 2012, if you believe tax rates will go up, then convert to a Roth ASAP.

The same holds true for your investment methodology. If you are in “preservation” mode, holding U.S. treasuries and following the recommendations of your broker, then the tax free growth of a Roth 401(k) is of little benefit. If, on the other hand, you are actively diversifying out of the United States, using offshore self-directed LLCs and related strategies to grow your wealth, and investing with an eye towards maximum growth, a Roth 401(k) may result is significant tax savings in the long run.

Here are some of the other situations where a Roth conversion may make sense:

  • You want to leave a tax-free inheritance to your heirs, regardless of the cost, or your tax rate is significantly lower than your beneficiaries.
  • You are at the lower end of the tax-rate scale now and will likely be at a much higher tax-rate during retirement.
  • You have enough deductions and tax credits to offset the tax bill that would be due on the Roth conversion.
  • When will you need to access your retirement money? If very soon, say in the next 8 to 10 years, then a Roth conversion may not make sense.
  • Can you afford to pay the taxes on the conversion? If you are under age 59 ½ and need to take money from your retirement account to pay the taxes, it almost never makes sense to convert. If you are over 59 ½, and the 10% penalty will not apply, then payment of taxes from your retirement account may be advisable.

In conclusion, I note that the optimal strategy may include both Roth and traditional accounts. This will give you the most flexibility when navigating the sea of tax law changes in the years to come. For example, you might be able to avoid increased taxation of your Social Security benefits, or increased Medicare premiums and Obama-care costs by using tax-free Roth withdrawals to keep taxable income below a given threshold.

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