‘The Dean is Furious! He’s Waxing Wroth!’

This was the only quote I could think of to introduce a discussion of planning with Roth IRA and retirement plan benefits. In response to this statement, Groucho Marx said: “Is Roth here too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.”

Delaware Sen. William Roth gave his name to this type of retirement benefit. It’s simple, sort of. You don’t get a tax deduction when the contributions are made, but you don’t pay taxes when the account is distributed at retirement. You give up a current tax saving in exchange for a greater one later. Is this a good deal? The answer is definitely, sometimes.

If you knew that you would pay a higher tax rate in retirement, Roth tax treatment would clearly be better. Conversely, if you knew that your tax rate would be much lower in retirement, it might be better to stay with the traditional method of planning: a deduction up front and taxation later. Opinions vary on this subject, and studies have been made to try to determine when and whether one method is superior to the other. There are some unknown elements: not only your own tax rate but tax rates in general. Who can predict what income tax rates will be 10 or 20 years from now? Or that Roth treatment will still be in effect?

For now, here are two situations in which Roth treatment makes sense. First, if you have a child who has a summer job, it makes sense that the child have a Roth IRA. In most cases, kids with summer jobs have little or no income tax liability anyway, so a deduction for an IRA contribution is of no value to them. Then, they will have many years in which the Roth IRA can grow tax-free. When the funds are distributed, perhaps 50 years later, the small contributions from summer jobs could be a large amount.

Here’s another possible benefit: Roth IRAs do not have minimum distribution rules, unlike standard IRAs and qualified plans. If an individual has other assets such that he or she won’t need the Roth money, the balance can be left in for the rest of the individual’s life and be paid out only in the next generation. This extremely long-term accumulation period, followed by no tax on distribution, can make Roth a valuable planning benefit.

People with standard benefits can convert them to Roth benefits by paying taxes on them now. After that, any distributions will be free of tax. The ability to convert is limited to those with income below certain levels, but that restriction will end by 2010. At that time, anyone will be able to convert to Roth treatment. This opens up the possibility of interesting estate planning with Roth benefits, which we’ll discuss in another blog.

Robert H. Louis
Saul Ewing
http://saul.com

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