There are a number of advantages for starting a Roth IRA account, the most important being that all the investment earnings grow tax-free, and qualified distributions are tax-free. Additionally, you can continue to make contributions to your Roth after you turn 70 1/2 and are not subject to the required minimum distribution rules. Currently, only individuals who have a modified adjusted gross income (AGI) of less than $100,000 and/or who do not file their return as “married filing separately” can contribute to a Roth IRA, or convert their traditional IRA to a Roth.

However, beginning in 2010, everyone, no matter what their income level or filing status, will be able to have a Roth IRA. The question that remains to determine is when you should convert, if at all.

Spreading out your tax liability

A conversion is treated as a taxable distribution, but is not subject to the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. However, taxpayers who convert to a Roth IRA in 2010 (and 2010, only) have the ability to pay taxes on the converted amount ratably over two years, in 2011 and 2012. Therefore, if you convert to a Roth in 2009, you must recognize the entire converted amount in income on your 2009 tax return.

Changes for 2010

In 2010, the $100,000 modified AGI cap that has prevented many individuals from establishing a Roth IRA, or converting from their traditional IRA to a Roth, is completely eliminated. Moreover, the filing status limitation will also be done away with, meaning that married couples filing separately will be able to contribute to a Roth IRA as well. However, all other rules continue to apply, and any amount you convert to a Roth IRA will still be taxed as ordinary income at your marginal tax rate. The exception for 2010, of course, is that you will have the choice of recognizing the conversion income in 2010 or averaging it over 2011 and 2012.

Example 1. You have $28,000 in a traditional IRA, which consists of deductible contributions and earnings. In 2010, you convert the entire amount to a Roth IRA. You do not take any distributions in 2010. As a result of the conversion, you have $28,000 in gross income. Unless you elect otherwise, $14,000 of the income is included in income in 2011 and $14,000 is included in income in 2012.

Example 2. On the other hand, if you currently meet the AGI and filing status requirements to convert to a Roth IRA (that is, your AGI for 2009 will be less than $100,000 and your filing status is not “married filing separately” you can also convert this year. But, you will recognize all the conversion income in 2009 instead of having it spread over two years. Therefore, if in the example above you convert the entire $28,000 to a Roth IRA in 2009, you will pay tax on the entire $28,000 conversion amount in 2009.

Taking advantage of lower tax rates

Currently, the income tax rates are at a historic low. But these rates are scheduled to revert to previously higher levels (and rise further for some taxpayers) after 2010. The Obama administration has proposed extending the lower individual marginal income tax rates but raising the two highest income tax brackets to 36- and 39.6-percent after 2010. This should be considered in your decision of when (and if) to convert to a Roth in 2010, or now in order to take advantage of the lower income tax rates, especially if you expect to be in one of the two highest income tax brackets after 2010.

Conversions in years after 2010 will be included in your income during the tax year in which you completed the conversion to a Roth IRA. While deferring tax is a traditional and beneficial part of tax planning, if you convert in 2010 the tax will be spread out ratably in 2011 and 2012, and therefore taxed at the rates in effect for 2011 and 2012 (which as mentioned could be higher for some taxpayers). Thus, if income tax rates go up, which they are anticipated to do, you may end up paying much more tax. Therefore, if you do not want to take this chance that your income rate will be higher in 2011 and 2012, you may want to elect to pay the full tax on the Roth conversion in your 2010 income tax return, at 2010 income tax rates.

So why would you accelerate a conversion? If you believe your IRA assets are currently valued on the low side, you might opt for a conversion if you are below the $100,000 AGI level for 2009. This reduces your tax liability on the conversion. Similarly, if you converted within the past year and the value of the assets has declined since then, you can elect to “undo” the conversion. Otherwise, you will have paid tax on the conversion when the assets were at a higher value.

Undoing the conversion later

If you convert to a Roth IRA, but later change your mind, you have until Oct. 15 of the year after the year of conversion to undue the transaction and go back to your traditional IRA. For example, if you convert in 2009, you will generally have until October 15, 2010 to recharacterize the transaction. However, to do this you must have filed your individual tax return by the normal filing deadline (April 15, generally) or if you obtained an extension, the extension due date.

For example, if the value of your Roth drastically declines after the conversion, and leaves you essentially with a Roth IRA value that is even less than the tax you paid to convert, this would be a good reason to undo the transaction. Recharacterizing the conversion would undo the tax consequences and therefore you’d get back the tax you paid on the larger amount that was converted to the Roth IRA.

Can you afford the conversion tax?

You will have to pay a conversion tax on the transaction, which can be a significant sum. In spite of all the advantages of a Roth IRA, a conversion is generally advisable if you can readily pay the tax generated in the year of the conversion. If the tax is paid out of a distribution from the converted IRA, that amount is also taxed; and if the distribution counts as an early withdrawal, it is also subject to an additional 10 percent penalty. For those planning to convert who may not already have the funds available, saving now in a regular bank or brokerage account to cover the amount of the tax in 2010 can return an unusually high yield if it enables a Roth IRA conversion in 2010 that might not otherwise take place.

Determining whether to convert to a Roth IRA can be a complicated decision to make, as it raises a host of tax and financial questions. Please call our offices if you have any questions about the Roth IRA conversion opportunity.