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Archive for November, 2010

All your ex-es may live in Texas as the country song says but do you really want your hard-earned money to follow?  And you may be a generous sort but would you rather have your wealth pass on to your family or Uncle Sam?  More examples of smart people doing dumb things when it comes to estate and legacy planning.

What do you think of when someone says “estate plan?”

If you think that it’s only for “old” people or those with lots of money, then think again.  If you have someone or something you care about, then you need a plan regardless of age or the amount of money involved.

Honey, I forgot the kids …

Think of Ana Nicole Smith and her infant daughter.  Think about the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Take away the money and there is still the drama about custody and guardianship for the children that could have been avoided with a proper plan.  And this sort of thing happens daily with families of much lesser means but the same need for care of a loved one.

There is an old saying:  Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.

What Estate Planning Really Means to You and Your Family

The easiest definition of estate planning is controlling how and who gets what you have when you pass away or become disabled.

As estate attorneys in the Esperti Petersen Model define it:

Estate planning provides the ability to:

  • Give what I have
  • To whom I want
  • When I want
  • The way I want.

Legacy planning takes it a step further and provides for the transfer of wisdom, memories and experiences along with the material wealth.

Most estate attorneys and financial advisers start from the point of view about the money and taxes.  Most clients are categorized into three groups:

  1. Individuals
  2. Married with assets above the federal estate tax exemption (now through December 31, 2010 at $3.5M)
  3. Married with assets below the federal estate tax exemption.

But a more client-focused and value-oriented planning approach to estate and financial planning begins with conversations about what is important to the client.  Only then will a client understand the context of a plan as well as why there may be need for changes to keep it current and aligned with the goals expressed by the client.

Too often, I hear that “I’m all set” because “I took care of it” or drafted a will when their college senior was about 2 years old.

In an increasingly complex world with changing state and federal tax codes, fluctuating asset values and a litigious culture, it is even more important to create a plan and routinely review it.  (If you were traveling on a highway cross-country, you wouldn’t simply turn on cruise control and take a nap, would you? I hope not. Even if you have good insurance, are you sure who’s going to get the proceeds?)

17 Major Mistakes

There are more than 17 significant common  mistakes that people make regarding estate planning.  These include failing to coordinate the financial plan, improperly structuring life insurance policies, choosing the wrong executor, improperly gifting assets, failure to properly create and fund trusts and the list goes on.

We could talk about Qualified Personal Residence Trusts, Installment Sales to Defective Grantor Trusts, Family Limited Partnerships and Credit Shelter Trusts.

But that’s all legalese.  It’s sort of like asking someone for the time and they tell you how to build a watch.  That doesn’t matter to you as much as knowing the time.  There are lots of tools in the tool kit of a qualified estate and financial planner.  You probably don’t care about which tool to use as long as the right tool recommended by a professional does the job.

What happens when you deal with real people? (1)

Jack and Jill and a Boy Named Dale

Jack recently turned 32.  He and Jill have been married for nearly three years. Dale was born nearly 13 months ago.  When not at work as UPS delivery driver, he enjoyed getting his heart pumping by cycling with a local riding club.  During a weekend ride as the group of cyclists were descending a hill quickly, a car being driven by a dentist who was late for a client appointment overtook the riders thinking that he had enough time and distance to safely clear the group.  He abruptly turned right onto the street where his office is located.

Unfortunately, the other car coming from the opposite direction to the stop sign on the street the dentist was driving onto was being driven by a young driver who was distracted by her incoming text message which lead her to cross over her lane.  When the dentist’s car hit her at the corner, it caused the cyclists to swerve in confusion.

In the resulting melee, Jack went down hard breaking his collarbone and vertebrae in his lower back leaving him without the ability to walk more than a short distance and unable to lift more than a couple of pounds.

Richard and Anne and the Day that Changed Everything

Richard and Anne lived in an old colonial overlooking the river in a quaint New England town.  Richard had a successful position with Cantor Fitzgerald, one of the world’s premier bond trading shops located in the World Trade Center of New York City.  While Anne managed the home front and their two rambunctious boys age 7 and 4, Richard would commute by plane to meet clients or for meetings at the corporate offices in New York.

By all accounts, they had an ideal life.  They had family and close ties to the community.  Their weekends were filled with home improvement projects on their home or one of the three investment properties they rented out.

Their world was turned upside down a little after 9 AM on September 11, 2001 when Richard’s plane was flown into one of the World Trade Center towers.

Paul and His Long Lost Love

Paul had been married to Bertie for more than 5 years when Bertie asked for a divorce in 1967 fed up by Paul’s late night carousing. After a couple of years of the single life, Paul found Carol, a long lost love from high school days.

Flirtations became something more and Paul and Carol got married and lived a nice life together.

After more than 30 years of working at his job with the state, he decided to retire. But before he turned in his papers, Paul died suddenly from a heart attack.

Although the loss of Paul, her long time love, was devastating, the news that followed was even worse.  It seems that Paul had never quite gotten around to fixing the beneficiary listed on his pension so the estate of his ex-wife Bertie, long since dead, would be going to Bertie’s younger, sole-surviving sister from Texas leaving Carol without an income source for her retirement.

Sal and Pauline

The romance that would result in seven children, thirteen grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren began when Sal and Pauline met at a USO dance at Fort Devens in 1943. Before shipping overseas with his Army unit, they got married.  More than sixty years later, they enjoyed the retirement years shuttling between family visits and weekly dances at the local senior center.

Then Sal noticed that Pauline started forgetting things.  With that many kids and grand kids, it wasn’t hard to imagine forgetting all their birthdays but soon she started forgetting to eat and dress.

Eventually, her doctor gave Sal the hard news that Pauline had Alzheimer’s and despite his best efforts she would need professional care.

After Sal and his sons brought Pauline to the nursing home, the reality hit home.  Despite their frugal lifestyle, Sal and Pauline had a sizeable nest egg and home.  After the first 120 days in the nursing home, Sal would need to start writing checks in the amount of $7,500 each month for Pauline’s care.  A lifetime of hard work and saving was being threatened.  What could he do?  Was there any other way?

Lots of Things Can Happen

Divorce.  Disability. Law Suits. Remarriage. Car Accidents. Business Partners.

If you think that these things can’t happen to you, think again.  Seek out the help of a good planning team that can coordinate these pieces.  While no one can predict what may happen, putting together a proper plan will help you and those you love with picking up the pieces after a personal loss or tragedy.  

Value-Oriented Estate Plan Foundation

(1) Note:  All names have been changed and situations presented are a compilation of various facts.

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Recent academic research by Gordon Pye on the impact of emergency withdrawals on retirement planning may put into question the rule of thumb used by many advisers to determine a safe, sustainable withdrawal rate.

For many investors and their financial advisers, the accepted rule of thumb has been to withdraw no more than 4% of an investment portfolio in any given year to provide a sustainable income stream when in retirement.

Is this rule of thumb reasonable given the potential impact of personal emergencies?  And how can a withdrawal strategy be created to account for them and the impact of external forces like a market correction or longer bear market?

Cloudy Crystal Ball

Analytical tools and software have come a long way but even contemporary tools can’t account for everything.

I spoke with an estate attorney the other day.  We were talking about the many challenges for helping clients plan properly for contingencies in the face of so many internal and external variables.

What he said is worth keeping in mind when thinking about any sort of financial planning:  If you tell me when you’re going to die, I can prepare a perfect estate plan for you?

The same sentiment can be adapted for retirement income planning.  Sure, if you tell me how long you’ll live in retirement, how much it will cost each year and when you’re going to die, I can tell you how much you’ll need.

In reality, this is unlikely.  More often than not, the crystal ball is cloudy. So you have two choices here: Wing it or Plan.

Winging it is pretty simple. Nothing complicated.  Simply keep shuffling along. Sometimes you’ll scramble. Other times you’ll be “fat and happy” for lack of a better phrase.

Planning, on the other hand, is a lot like work.  It requires assumptions and conversations.  It may even require bringing in others to help create the framework.

While nobody wants another job to do given an already busy day, there is an upside to investing the time here: Peace of mind.

What the Doctor Says:

Here’s a summary of what Dr. Pye wrote recently in his article.

  • In retirement, you may never have an emergency or you may have one or more.
  • The timing and extent of these emergencies is unknown.
  • While a retiree may be able to reduce the damage caused by a bear market maybe through market growth, other emergencies may require withdrawals that siphon money away from the investment pot that can never again be used to help repair the hole left by that withdrawal.
  • The timing of these emergency withdrawals may cause a retiree to abandon a market strategy at an inopportune time.

The biggest unknown?  Health care is the biggest likely emergency on your retirement budget.  These can be related to your own health or even an adult son or daughter.  Other emergencies may be caused by catastrophic weather (mudslide, wind or flood damage to your home), the extended loss of a job by a son or daughter or a divorce compelling you to help out.

In other research by Dr. John Harris supports the notion that what matters most to all investors – and retirees in particular – is the sequence of returns not simply the average rate of return on a portfolio.

Intuitively, we understand this.  A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.  Cash now is better than cash later (which may be a deterrent against planning now for a future need).  If you were to just retire and the market takes a nosedive as you are withdrawing funds, you would be in tough shape because you have a smaller base that is invested that has to do double (or triple) duty.  The amount of appreciation needed to make up for the hole left by the withdrawals combined with market losses would be near impossible or require an investor to take imprudent risks to try to regain lost ground.

So what’s an investor to do?

  1. Save more – easier said than done but this is really key or otherwise choose a different lifestyle budget.
  2. Reduce initial withdrawal rates from 4% to 3%.
  3. Follow an “endowment spending” policy instead of a simple rule of thumb.
  4. Invest for income from multiple sources (dividend-paying stocks as well as bonds).
  5. Stay invested in the stock market but change up the players.  Not even a championship ball club has the same line up from game to game.  As markets change, you need to add more tactical plays into the mix of asset types
  6. Separate your investments into different buckets:  short-term lifestyle budget, medium-term and longer-term.  Each of these can have different risk characteristics.
  7. Keep a safety net of near-cash to cover lifestyle needs for 1 to 2 years.
  8. Monitor the buckets so that one doesn’t get too low or start to overflow.  This will require moving funds from one to the other to maintain consistency with the targets.
  9. Don’t let your insurances lapse.  Insurance is there to fill in the gap so you don’t have to shell money out-of-pocket.  Here you want to regularly recheck your homeowner coverage for inflation protection riders, cost of replacement and liability.  Check your coverage and deductible limits for wind, sump pump and other damage.

 

 

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As noted in previous articles and posts, whether or not your student qualifies for federal financial aid for college will depend on the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) calculation.

Typically, almost all assets and income are included in this calculation by financial aid officers.  There are exceptions to all rules and in this case, federal aid formulas (under the “Federal Methodology”) exclude home or family farm equity, money accumulated in tax-deferred retirement accounts and cash value built up in a life insurance policy.  The cash values of fixed and variable annuities are also excluded.

Since these assets are not counted in determining aid, some families may be tempted to consider “asset shifting” strategies.  With such techniques, a countable asset like savings or investments through a brokerage account are used to acquire one or more of these other non-countable asset types.

Friends and clients have attended financial aid workshops sponsored by college aid planners or insurance agents who recommend purchasing annuities or life insurance.  Sometimes these strategies involve doing a “cash out” refinance or drawing on a home equity line of credit. Tapping home equity to fund a deposit into an insurance or annuity vehicle may benefit a mortgage banker and insurance agent but is it in your best interests?

Asset Shifting to Qualify for More Financial Aid: Is it worth it?

Well, that depends on what side of the table you’re sitting on.

Yes, it’s true that anything you can do to reduce your expected family contribution may help boost the amount and type of aid your student may receive.

On the other hand, remember these points:

  • Family assets are counted at a low contribution rate of 5.6% above the asset-protection allowance calculated for your family circumstances.
  • If you put money into a tax-deferred account, it’s locked up.  Access to the funds before age 59 1/2 results in early withdrawal penalties in most cases.
  • You may have to pay to borrow your own money.

Granted, socking away money into tax-deferred vehicles may make sense for you.  And as I’ve noted before, paying for college is as much a retirement problem as anything else so anything you can do to provide for your Golden Years can be a good thing.

But don’t get tempted into long-term commitments to cover short-term financing issues.

By shifting assets you lose access and flexibility for the cash.  If employing such a strategy reduces your emergency cash reserve, then you’ve increased your risk to handle unexpected cash needs.

Cash Value Life Insurance and the Bank of You

Cash value life insurance accumulates its value over time.  Starting a policy within a couple of years of your student’s college enrollment is not going to help you.  During the initial years of such a policy very little cash is built up as insurance expenses and first-year commissions paid out by the insurer to the agent are very high which limit the amount of paid premiums that are actually invested for growth.

But consider this:  For some who have existing policies or are looking for a way to build cash over time that offers guarantees and is potentially tax-free, then by all means use life insurance.  There are strategies commonly referred to as the Infinite Banking Concept or the Bank of You which champion life insurance as a way to build and access your own pot of money available to you to borrow for almost any purpose.

There are many attributes to life insurance that make these concepts useful

  • Tax-free dividends,
  • Access to money without credit or income qualifications or delays from a traditional bank,
  • Guarantees on the cash value from the insurer.

But one downside is the cash flow needed to actually build up a pot big enough to tap into for buying a car much less paying school tuition.  You would in all likelihood need to divert all other available cash and stop funding any other tax-deferred plans to build up the cash.  And then there is the time line needed.  To effectively build up the cash, you really need to bank on at least 5 years before you have a Bank of You to tap. This is why such a solution is not recommended for those with students about to enter college.

Bottom Line:

Don’t let the financial aid tail wag the retirement planning dog here.  Only use these tactics after consultation with a qualified financial professional, preferably one who has no vested interest in whether or not you purchase a particular product.

 

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Mortgage interest rates continue to be at historic lows.  Rates for 30-year fixed rate loans are hovering in the 4% to 4.2% range. There’s no real whiff of inflation in the air that could lead to a spike in interest rates any time soon.

So should you refinance?  Crunching the numbers is crucial.

When I was a mortgage banker, the rule of thumb would be it made sense when prevailing interest rates were 2% or more below your current rate.  With the availability of zero point and zero closing cost loans, it even made sense when the rate was a mere 1/2% difference.  It was common for homeowners to get calls from their mortgage brokers alerting them that the rates had dipped and they should refinance even before the homeowner may have made their first mortgage payment on their new loan.  It was even common for mortgage brokers to keep current copies of income, credit and asset verification forms on file in order to start a new application quickly.

Things have certainly changed since the refinance booms of the 1980s and late 1990s.

Property market values have fallen throughout many parts of the country.  The number of jobless are at historic highs.  Credit has been strained by more than two years of economic crisis and now malaise. Banks are in much less tolerant moods now to offer special deals or bend the rules when underwriting a loan.

Since buying and owning a home is one of the largest investments for many, it pays to consult with a professional who can help you sort all of this out.

Break Even

One of the first things that an adviser can help you do is make an informed decision about how this refinance will impact the total picture for your personal finances.

Paying off debts and consolidating credit cards may look good but if you’ll just end up running up the tabs on these accounts right after the refinance, then you’re no further ahead.

Assuming you will not be tempted into debt again, then you need to figure out what the refinance will cost compared to the potential interest savings.  The “break even” point in terms of months or years is calculated by dividing the costs by the projected savings.

For example, if you took out a $400,000 loan three years at a 30-year fixed rate of 5.5%, then your principal and interest payment(P&I) is $2,271.16 per month.  After three years of payments, your balance is about $382,905 if you made no additional payments to principal.

Let’s assume that the prevailing rate now for the same loan term is 4.5% and your new loan will be just enough to pay off the old balance and any closing costs for this loan.  Assuming a new loan amount of $395,000 to cover 1 point (or 1% of the loan), plus the various fees and the payoff balance of about $385,200 (payoff balances are higher than statement balances because of accrued interest), then the new monthly payment is estimated at $2,001.41 for P&I.

The $9,800 in closing costs divided by the estimated monthly savings of $269.75 translates to a break even of 36 months. So if you think you’ll likely remain in the home for at least 3 years, then it may mean more cash flow into your pocket.

Selling or refinancing before then means that you will not be better off and your actual effective interest cost for borrowing (the Annual Percentage Rate) will actually be much higher than the stated coupon rate.

What’s not taken into account by this calculation is the additional interest that you are going to pay because you will be extending the term of the loan by three years. Sure, the new loan will be written for a 30-year term.  But so was the last one you had started three years ago in this example.  So instead of being mortgage-free in 2037, you’ll be paying on this loan until 2040 if you don’t refinance before then or sell the property.

Try a Different Term

Just because you’ve always had a 30-year fixed rate doesn’t mean that you have to always get the same term.  Usually, a term of 20-year or 25-years is offered at the same interest rate.  Assuming you can handle the higher payment for the shorter term, it may make sense.

In this example, a 25-year term fixed rate loan at 4.5% for $395,000 will mean a P&I payment of $2,195.54 each month.  Compared to the original loan payment of $2,271.16, this means your monthly cash outflow will increase by $75.  But you will save two years in interest payments over the old loan.

Cash In or Cash Out

Instead of “cashing out” equity and walking away from the closing table with a check, it’s becoming common to see people “cashing in” and come to the closing table with a check to pay towards the loan payoff.

This may be because the homeowner wants a lower payment.  Or it could more likely be because of the drop in property value and the lender’s loan-to-value limits.

In either case, you now need to consider whether locking up this cash by paying it to the bank makes sense. Will it still leave you with sufficient emergency cash reserves? Besides flexibility, what else are you giving up?  Could this money be invested somewhere else and what could you expect as a return?

This is the kind of comparative analysis that a qualified financial adviser can provide when making such financial decisions.

Home Equity Value: Another Potential Problem

These are best case scenarios.  What happens if the property value has dropped?  If you had less than 20% equity in your property when you bought or last refinanced, it’s quite possible that you may not have enough equity to do a refinance.  Or you might be underwater with your current loan above the market value.

Even if there is equity to do a refinance, there are new risk-based lending guidelines that require the lender to tack on an additional amount to the interest rate or the closing costs or both if the loan amount is higher than 75% of the appraised value.

And depending on the area, some lenders are not taking the appraised value provided by the appraiser without reducing it by a 5% “haircut” which may make it economically unfeasible to do the loan or qualify under the lender’s counter-terms offered.

Staff Crunch, Delays and Legal Issues

Given the low rates, lenders are swamped with applications and may not be able to process an application within your rate lock period.

And recent issues regarding the proper filing of mortgage documents that is now resulting in some homeowners challenging their foreclosures could spill over to good credit quality borrowers as well.  In addition to the drain on lender resources to fix this problem, it could delay conveyance attorneys or title companies in tracking down the records needed to do a proper title search.

So should you refinance? If it fits into your financial plan, then yes.  If you don’t have a financial plan, then call a qualified adviser to get one before trying to figure all this out on your own.


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The holiday season is almost upon us.  Before we all get caught up in the spirit of the season (or mayhem, depending on your perspective), consider taking time to get your fiscal house in order with these tips.

The Year of the RMD

Last year, required minimum distributions (RMDs) were not required as Congress granted a reprieve to not force clients to take distributions from severely depressed retirement accounts.

That free pass is not available this year.  So if you or someone you know is over age 70 1/2, you have to take a distribution from your IRAs.  This also applies to those who are beneficiaries of inherited IRA accounts as well.

Distributions don’t have to be taken from each IRA account but a calculation must be made based on the value of all accounts at the end of last year.  Then a withdrawal can be made from one or more accounts as long as it at least equals the minimum amount.

Think Ahead for Higher Taxes

In all likelihood, taxes will be higher next year.  As things stand, the Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire and marginal income tax rates and estate taxes will increase.

So look to booking capital gains this year if possible since tax rates on both long-term and short-term gains are certainly lower this year.

Reduce Concentration

There’s obviously enough going on to distract any investor but what I’m talking about here is concentrated stock positions.  Many clients may take advantage of company-sponsored stock purchase plans or have inherited positions concentrated in just a few stock positions.

Regardless of one’s age, this is risky.  This is especially risky to concentrate your income and your investments with your employer.  Remember Enron?  How about WorldCom?  Or maybe Alcatel-Lucent?

So given the lower capital gains tax rates that exist definitely now (versus a proposed but illusory extension later), it makes sense to reduce the highly concentrated positions in one or more stocks.

I know a widow who inherited the stock positions that her husband bought.  These included AT&T and Apple.  While AT&T was once a great “widow and orphans” stock paying out a reliable dividend because of the cash flow generated from its near monopoly status in telephone services, it broke up into so many Baby Bells.  The dividends from these have not matched the parent company and the risks of these holdings have increased as the telecom sector  has become more volatile.

And while Apple has been a soaring success for her (bought very low), it represents over one-third of her investment holdings.

Like most people I come across, she has emotional ties to these holdings.  And while she and others like her would not think of going into a casino to put all their chips on one or two numbers at the roulette wheel, they don’t find it inconsistent to have a lot of their eggs in just one or two investment baskets.

Since she relies on these investments to supplement her income, she needs to think about how to protect herself.  Although people may recognize this need, it doesn’t make it any easier to get people to do what is in their best interests when their emotions get in the way.

‘Tis the Season for Giving

Right now the highest marginal income tax bracket is 35% which is set to rise to 39.6%.  And capital gains tax rates are set to rise as well.  And come January 1, the capital deduction on gifts will be reduced from 35% to 28%.  All of this makes giving substantial gifts to charities a little more costly for your wallet.  So if you’re planning to make a large charitable donation, it pays to speed it up into this year.

To Roth or Not to Roth – Year of the Conversion?

This year provides high-earners an opportunity to convert all or part of their tax-deferred accounts to Roth IRAs which offers an opportunity to pay no income tax on withdrawals in the future.

The decision to take advantage of this opportunity needs to be weighed against the availability and source of cash to pay taxes now on previously deferred gains in the tax-deferred IRAs or 401ks. It also must consider the assumptions about future income tax rates and even whether or not future Roth IRA withdrawal rules might be changed by Congress.

Create an Investment Road Map

To really help gain clear direction on your investing, you really should consider sitting down with an adviser who will help you draft your personal investment road map (an Investment Policy Statement) that outlines how investment purchase and sale decisions will be made, what criteria will be used to evaluate proposed investments and how you will gauge and track results toward your personal benchmark.

This exercise helps establish a clear process that minimizes the impact of potentially destructive emotional reactions that can lead you astray.

Rebalance and Diversify

Just as you might plan on changing the batteries in your smoke detectors when you reset the clocks in the spring and fall, you should rebalance your investments periodically as well.

Now is as good a time as any to reassess your risk tolerance.  Research has shown that an investor’s risk tolerance is dynamic and influenced by general feelings about yourself, your situation and the world around you.  With the world’s stock markets showing many positive gains, this may lead some to become more willing to take risks.  This may not be a good thing in the long run so really question your assumptions about investing.

Armed with your investment road map and a risk profile, you will be in a better position to determine the mix of investments for diversification.  Don’t be afraid of adding to the mix investment asset classes that may not be familiar.  The idea of diversification is assembling investment assets that complement each other while potentially reducing risk.  And just as the economy has changed and the types of industries that are dominant rise and fall, it’s fair to say that what is “in” now may be “out” later making it important to reconsider your mix.

For this reason, this is why looking abroad to developed and emerging markets still makes sense.  Many of these economies are not bogged down by the after-effects of the great financial meltdown. And the rise of their consumerist middle classes means the potential to take advantage of demographics favoring growth sectors like natural resources, telecom, agriculture and technology.

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Lots of ink has been spilled discussing one of the most hyped retirement and tax strategies: Roth IRA conversions.  The prospect of future tax-free withdrawals is enticing.  But there are lots of issues that need to be considered whether it is right for you.

According to Google, there has been a surge in interest about Roth IRA conversions as it has become one of the top search terms this fall. (1)

This is hardly surprising considering that starting in 2010, all taxpayers, regardless of income, are eligible to convert tax-deferred retirement assets to a Roth IRA.

Prior to the change, the law prevented taxpayers with household incomes above $100,000 from converting assets to a Roth IRA.

Starting this year, tax code changes allow conversions of other tax-deferred retirement accounts regardless of income. This broadens the opportunity for those who did not have these choice before. It should be noted that there are still annual income limits in place for determining eligibility to contribute to a Roth IRA. (There are no limits to use a Roth 401k provision in your employer’s plan).

The majority of Americans believe their own taxes are going to increase.  Given government deficits and entitlements for an aging workforce, taxes may certainly be needed to cover these commitments.

As it stands, tax rates are scheduled to increase in 2011. Unless Congress acts to delay reversion to the prior tax rates, taxes on Roth IRA conversions will be higher after 2010.

A Roth IRA conversion offers an opportunity for future tax-free income.2

But does it make sense?

Does Roth Conversion Make Sense

Whether or not a Roth conversion makes sense really depends on an individual’s circumstances.

Money in all types of tax-deferred accounts like IRAs, 401ks and such are all jointly owned by the participant and Uncle Sam as silent partner.

Although the tax tail shouldn’t wag the dog, you should cut the best deal with the least impact on your personal tax situation.

It makes the most sense for those who expect to have more than enough assets and income for retirement and don’t want to be forced to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) on IRA accounts.  It also makes sense for estate planning purposes as a way to build a multi-generational legacy of tax-deferred wealth accumulation.

And for most who believe that their marginal income tax rates in retirement will be higher whether because of tax policy or because of their own success with work and investments, then it may make sense to lock in the tax liability now.

It also makes sense for those who expect a low income year in 2010 because of retirement or unemployment for example.  Being in a lower tax bracket may reduce the tax bite on the converted funds.

While income and earnings may be withdrawn in retirement tax-free, an investor will still need to pay Uncle Sam now for that future privilege.

And all of this analysis assumes that Congress doesn’t change the rules down the road and even tax Roth accounts.  Consider the fact that during the 1980s, Congress changed the rules about taxing Social Security benefits.

Keeping that in mind, it still may make sense as a way to hedge against future tax policy to do a partial conversion of some of your tax-deferred retirement accounts especially if you have money from non-IRA accounts to tap.

If you use the funds from the tax-deferred account and you’re younger than 59 ½, you’ll be hit with an early withdrawal penalty and your investment will be starting from a lower base making the payback of the strategy more complicated.

Because the tax is assessed on the gains in the account, an ideal time to do this and minimize the tax impact is when account values are off their highs.  With the gains over the past year, this may make a conversion less attractive.

Another thing to consider is that by doing a conversion, your adjusted gross income will increase and potentially result in loss of COBRA subsidy or education credits which are subject to income phase outs.

You Can Change Your Mind Later

Unlike most things in life, you can get a “do over” called a recharacterization that converts everything back to the way it was. The assets would be converted back to tax-deferred status and you can file an amended tax return seeking a refund of the income taxes you paid on the conversion.

Roth IRA conversions offer the potential for tax-free income in retirement for taxpayers at all income levels. If you want more information about converting to a Roth IRA, call 617-398-7494 or email today.

It’s critical to review your individual situation before making a decision about moving important assets.
1) InvestmentNews, November 16, 2009
2) Rasmussen Reports, September 3, 2009

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