The Roth Individual Retirement Account

The Roth IRA offers retirement investors potentially tax-free retirement distributions. This article explains many features of the Roth IRA.

Retirement-conscious investors have long recognized the benefits of the traditional IRA. Another alternative, available since 1998, is the Roth IRA. Roth IRAs permit you to potentially avoid future taxation of earnings on your retirement funds by making nondeductible contributions now. Contributions are limited to $5,500 a year in 2016 and 2017 ($11,000 for couples) and are made on an after-tax basis. Also, individuals aged 50 and older can make an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 in 2016 and 2017. Certain income eligibility limits apply. Note that an individual's total contributions to all IRAs - Roth and traditional - may not exceed $5,500 annually (or $6,500 per year if you are at least 50 years old).

While Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, qualified withdrawals are tax free. Like traditional IRAs, withdrawals from Roth IRAs must generally be made after age 59½ to avoid a 10% tax penalty , although exceptions may apply such as for qualified educational expenses or a first-time home purchase. Unlike with traditional IRAs, however, you may continue contributions to a Roth IRA after age 70½, and there are no mandatory withdrawals during your lifetime. And, like traditional IRAs, "rollovers" are permitted from a Roth IRA to another Roth IRA . As of January 1, 2015, only one rollover per person, whether from a Traditional, Roth, SEP or SIMPLE IRA, is allowed in a 12 month period.

Key Points

The Roth IRA presents a potentially attractive alternative to the traditional IRA long favored by many Americans as a cornerstone in their retirement planning efforts. That's because a Roth IRA may allow you to avoid future taxation of any earnings on your retirement funds by making nondeductible contributions now.

Rules of the Roth IRA

Following is a summary of the rules for Roth IRAs:

Unlike the traditional IRA, contributions to a Roth IRA are nondeductible regardless of your income level or participation in a company-sponsored retirement plan.

Your total annual contributions to all IRAs are limited to $5,500 in 2016 and 2017. Individuals who are at least 50 years old by the end of the year are also able to make so-called catch-up contributions to a Roth IRA. The allowable catch-up contribution is $1,000 per year but is not adjusted for inflation. The contribution limit begins to decline or "phase out" for single taxpayers with modified adjusted gross incomes (MAGIs) of $117,000 or more for 2016 and $118,000 for 2017 and for married couples filing jointly with MAGIs of $184,000 or more for 2016 or $186,000 for 2017. Individuals with MAGIs of $132,000 or more for 2016 and $133,000 or more for 2017 ($194,000 for 2016 and $196,000 for 2017 for married couples filing jointly) are not eligible for a Roth IRA. Married taxpayers filing separately are not allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA if they have MAGIs of $10,000 or more.

Contribution limits may increase in the years ahead. In the future, the annual contribution limit may be adjusted for inflation.

Your contributions to a Roth IRA may continue beyond age 70½. You are not required to start taking distributions from a Roth IRA at age 70½, as you are with a traditional IRA, and you can continue to contribute as long as you have earned income. When a Roth IRA owner dies, however, his or her heirs must adhere to the same minimum distribution rules that apply to traditional IRAs.

Qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax free. While your contributions to a Roth IRA are never tax deductible, your distributions may be tax free if you have owned the Roth IRA for at least five years and:

  • You are at least 59½ years old or you qualify for one of several exceptions; or
  • Your withdrawal of up to $10,000 (lifetime limit) is applied to a first-time home purchase; or
  • You die or become permanently disabled.

You may qualify for the "first-time home purchase" if you have not owned a home for at least two years before the date on the purchase contract or the date when construction started for a principal residence. You, your spouse, or a descendant or ancestor of either may qualify as the buyer.

The taxable portion of a nonqualified distribution may be subject to a 10% tax penalty. If you make withdrawals that do not meet the rules for a qualified distribution, you'll owe regular income taxes on the taxable portion of the withdrawal. You must also pay a 10% penalty tax on the taxable portion of the withdrawal.

Penalty-free withdrawals are permitted for qualified education expenses. If you are under age 59½ but have held the Roth IRA for five years, you may withdraw funds penalty-free to pay for qualified education expenses for yourself or family members. You will have to pay income tax on the taxable portion of the distribution, however.

Retirement plan "rollovers" are permitted. If you are changing jobs or retiring, you can roll over funds from an employer retirement plan, such as a 401(k) account, directly to a Roth IRA. The rollover is treated as a conversion, with income taxes due on the taxable portion of the funds.

The Traditional IRA vs. the Roth IRA

When deciding whether a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA is best for you, you'll want to compare the after-tax dollars that would be available to you under each option. This will depend on many factors, including your tax bracket, how many years you have until retirement, and when you wish to begin making withdrawals. For some people, a Roth IRA will result in more after-tax income during retirement because qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax free, while distributions from a traditional IRA will generally be taxed.

For those whose contributions to a traditional IRA are tax deductible and who are in a higher tax bracket today than they will be in during retirement, a traditional IRA may be the smart choice.

If you are not eligible to participate in a company-sponsored retirement plan, you can make deductible contributions to a traditional IRA regardless of your income level, up to $5,500 in 2016 and 2017 (or $6,500 per year if you are at least 50 years old). Deductible contributions may be reduced or eliminated for individuals who participate in a company-sponsored retirement plan, based on their incomes.

The Traditional IRA
The traditional IRA may still provide an advantage over the Roth IRA to those who maximize its benefit. Here's how: You invest the tax savings from your IRA deduction in a traditional account each year and let that account grow along with your IRA. Assuming your tax rate drops in retirement, this could yield more of a tax-adjusted benefit than a Roth IRA.

Conversion of a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA

There are no income limits associated with the conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA -- anyone can convert, provided they pay the tax bill. Since the investment earnings and capital gains in your regular IRA have not been taxed yet, any applicable taxes are due at the time of the conversion. The withdrawal from your traditional IRA will count as income, but will not trigger the 10% penalty usually imposed on early withdrawals. If you have nondeductible contributions in any traditional IRA, you should check with a competent tax advisor, IRS or Publication 590-B to determine what portion of converted funds will be taxable.

Points to Remember
  1. Roth IRA contributions are nondeductible, but qualified withdrawals are tax free.
  2. Individual contributions to all IRAs are limited to $5,500 in 2016 and 2017 ($6,500 per year for investors who are at least 50 years old). Note that this amount may increase in the years ahead.
  3. You may continue contributions to a Roth IRA after age 70½, as long as you have earned income, and there are no required minimum distributions in your lifetime.
  4. You can make withdrawals of your basis (contributions) from a Roth IRA before age 59½ without paying the 10% penalty tax or income tax. Withdrawals of conversions, rollovers or earnings before age 59½ and the 5-year waiting period may be subject to the 10% penalty tax and income tax unless the funds are for the first-time home purchase, qualified education expenses, or if you die or become permanently disabled. To be sure no tax or penalty would be due from a Roth distribution, you should review the distribution rules that pertain to withdrawals from Roth IRAs (IRA Publication 590-B) or discuss with a qualified tax advisor. Publication 590-B, Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs), can be found on the IRS website at www.irs.gov.
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