Q: Can I convert the required minimum distribution from my regular IRA into a new Roth IRA account after paying the income taxes if I am not working? I want to have access to the money in case an emergency comes up. — Richard D'Arezzo, Acworth, GA
A: Sorry, no. According to IRS publication 590-A, the annual required minimum distribution (RMD) from your traditional IRA cannot be converted to a Roth IRA, says Tom Mingone, a financial planner at Capital Management Group of New York. But you do have options that can minimize taxes yet provide access to your money for emergencies.
Before we get to these alternatives, here's a quick review of RMDs. These distributions are required under IRS rules starting at age 70 ½—after all, you've been deferring the taxes that are owed on contributions to your IRAs, and the bill has to come due sometime. If you don’t take the distribution, you’ll pay a 50% tax penalty in addition to the regular income tax on the amount you are required to withdraw.
IRS rules prohibit putting your RMD into another tax-advantaged retirement account. But you can convert the remaining portion of your traditional IRA assets to a Roth IRA, though it will mean paying more taxes. "You just have to satisfy the RMD requirement before you do a Roth conversion," says Mingone. (If you aren't working and receiving earned income, you can't make a contribution to a Roth but once the money is in a traditional IRA, you don't need to have additional earned income to move the money to a Roth IRA.)
If you make a mistake and roll over or convert your RMD, it will be treated as an excess contribution, and you'll pay a penalty of 6% per year for each year it remains in the Roth or traditional IRA. You have until October 15 of the year after the excess contribution to correct it.
Is it a smart move to convert a traditional IRA to a Roth? That depends on your goals and your finances, says Mingone. Putting money into a Roth gives you a lot more flexibility because you'll no longer be subject to the RMD rule—you can choose when and how much you take out. And unlike traditional IRA withdrawals, money pulled from a Roth won't trigger taxes.
Still, there's a downside to the conversion: that tax bill on the amount you convert. Depending on the size of the bill and the years you have to invest, the benefit may be small. In any case, consider this move only if you can pay the taxes with money outside your IRA, says Mingone. (To get an idea of the taxes you would owe, try this Vanguard calculator.)
The case for a Roth is generally strongest for younger people who have more time for the money to grow tax-free. Still, even at 70 ½, you could have many years of growth. And if you want to leave money to heirs, a Roth offers the greatest flexibility.
But if you need access to the money for emergencies, a new Roth may prove costly. You can take the principle out, but any earnings on the amount you deposit will be taxed if you withdraw it in the first five years.
If you don’t want to tie your money up in a Roth, you could just invest in a taxable account. Look for tax-efficient options such as index mutual funds. And consider putting some of your RMD in municipal bonds, which are free from federal income tax and often state and local taxes too, Mingone says. Tax-exempt bonds have been a tear recently, which suggests that risks are rising. Still, if you're willing to hold on through market dips, munis may provide higher after-tax yields than taxable bonds.
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