If you’re one of the millions of American households who owns either a Traditional individual retirement account (IRA) or a Roth IRA, then the onset of tax season should serve as a reminder to review your retirement savings strategies and make any changes that will enhance your prospects for long-term financial security. It’s also a good time to start an IRA if you don’t already have one. The IRS allows you to contribute to an IRA up to April 15, 2009, for the 2008 tax year.
In either case, this checklist will provide you with information to help you make informed decisions and implement a long-term retirement income strategy.
There are two types of IRAs available: the Traditional IRA and the Roth IRA. The primary difference between them is the tax treatment of contributions and distributions (withdrawals). Traditional IRAs may allow a tax deduction based on the amount of a contribution, depending on your income level. Any account earnings compound on a tax-deferred basis, and distributions are taxable at the time of withdrawal at then-current income tax rates. Roth IRAs do not allow a deduction for contributions, but account earnings and qualified withdrawals are tax free.1
In choosing between a Traditional and a Roth IRA, you should weigh the immediate tax benefits of a tax deduction this year against the benefits of tax-deferred or tax-free distributions in retirement.
If you need the immediate deduction this year — and if you qualify for it — then you may wish to opt for a Traditional IRA. If you don’t qualify for the deduction, then it’s almost certainly a better idea to fund a Roth IRA.
Case in point: Your ability to deduct Traditional IRA contributions may be limited not only by income, but by your participation in an employer-sponsored retirement plan. (See callout box below.) If that’s the case, a Roth IRA is likely to be the best solution.
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On the other hand, if you expect your tax bracket to drop significantly after retirement, you may be better off with a Traditional IRA if you qualify for the deduction. You could claim an immediate deduction now and pay taxes at the lower rate later. Nonetheless, if your anticipated holding period is long, a Roth IRA might still make more sense. That’s because a prolonged period of tax-free compounded earnings could more than make up for the lack of a deduction.
The IRS allows you to “convert” — or change the designation of — a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA if you have an adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less. As part of the conversion, you must pay taxes on any investment growth in — and on the amount of any deductible contributions previously made to — the Traditional IRA. The withdrawal from your Traditional IRA will not affect your eligibility for a Roth IRA or trigger the 10% penalty normally imposed on early withdrawals.
The decision to convert or not ultimately depends on your timing and tax status. If you are near retirement and find yourself in the top income tax bracket this year, now may not be the time to convert. On the other hand, if your income is unusually low and you still have many years to retirement, you may want to convert.
If possible, try to contribute the maximum amount allowed by the IRS: $5,000 per individual, plus an additional $1,000 annually for those aged 50 and older for 2008. Those limits are per individual, not per IRA.
Of course, not everyone can afford to contribute the maximum to an IRA, especially if they’re also contributing to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. If your workplace retirement plan offers an employer’s matching contribution, then that “free” money may be more valuable than the amount of your deduction. As a result, it might make sense to maximize plan contributions first, and then try to maximize IRA contributions.