#29 Should I Convert to a ROTH IRA? A Talk with Ed Slott [Podcast]

Taxes suck. They erode away your income, savings and investments. One strategy to maximize your retirement savings is to convert your IRA to a ROTH IRA. ROTH IRAs are a powerful tool to help you do this but there are lots of tax and planning issues to consider first.

That's why I turned to Ed Slott, America's IRA expert. He is a nationally recognized IRA-distribution expert, a professional speaker, and the creator of several public television specials, including the most recent, Ed Slott’s Retirement Rescue!

Investing Corner--The Importance of Dividends

When most people thing of making money in equities, they think of buying low and selling high. That's a great strategy, but it's only part of the story. This week I explore the importance dividends can have in any investment portfolio.

I discuss these 5 reasons dividend can be a benefit to any portfolio:

  1. How dividends have comprised over 50% of the total return of the S&P 500 index

  2. The favorable tax treatment dividends can receive

  3. How dividends can be a good hedge against inflation

  4. Why dividends can help you control risk in your portfolio

  5. What are the attributes of most companies that pay dividends

Retirement Tip of the Week

During my conversation with Ed Slott, we cover:

  1. Best places to save for retirement

  2. The benefit of contributing to a ROTH IRA

  3. Ed's "Forever Tax to Never Tax" strategy using a ROTH IRA

  4. The importance of understanding the ROTH IRA conversion rules

  5. When it doesn't make sense to use a ROTH IRA

  6. How to use ROTH IRAs as an estate planning vehicle

  7. The types of people that should consider converting to a ROTH IRA

  8. The order to draw from your taxable, IRA & ROTH IRA accounts during retirement

  9. The benefits of drawing from your IRA in order to delay Social Security during retirement

  10. Biggest mistakes people make with IRAs

Have you considered converting to a ROTH IRA?

If you have a question, ask me here and I'll respond.

Read the Full Transcript

[spoiler] The Retirement Answer Man Episode #29

Well, hi there! Good morning or good evening or good afternoon, whatever time of day you’re listening to this. My name is Roger Whitney and welcome to The Retirement Answer Man. This is the show dedicated to helping you live well today without sacrificing your tomorrow. Financially speaking, I think that’s what we’re all trying to do ultimately. I know that’s what I work towards in my life.

I’m excited that you’re here with me today. We have two great topics that will help you along that journey.

In our Investing Corner, we’re going to talk about dividends and the importance – historically – dividends have had to the total return of an investment portfolio and why dividends might be an important part of any investment strategy, not just when you’re closer to retirement.

And then, in our Retirement Tip of the Week – and I think I need to rename that so, if you have any suggestions, shoot me an email at roger@wwkllc.com with a name. I don’t like the “Retirement Tip of the Week” anymore since it’s a regular segment. But, anyway, I talk with Ed Slott. Ed is the IRA expert, educator extraordinaire on the rules and strategies surrounding IRAs and ROTH IRAs and retirement planning in general. Ed has a wealth of knowledge and we had a great conversation about a lot of these rules and strategies that I think you’ll find really helpful.

You can find me, Roger Whitney, at my home on the internet at rogerwhitney.com – that is the home of The Retirement Answer Man and that is also the home of The Retirement Answer Library. If you’ve already subscribed to The Retirement Answer Library and accessed that library of over 20 worksheets and checklists, let me know what you would like to see added in there that can help you plan well and invest wisely in your life because it’s meant to be a resource for you. If you need something that you don’t see, if I’m able to create it and upload that into the library for you, you go ahead and let me know at rogerwhitney.com – You Ask, I ANSWER – and I’ll work my best to either find it or create it for you.

If you don’t know what it is, it’s just a library of checklists and worksheets, and you can have access to it totally for free just by going to rogerwhitney.com and registering for it on the right-hand side.

Let’s get started today because we’ve got some great topics. But, before we get started, we need to get centered here. We need to get some perspective and we need to get centered. Not only do we need to do that, we need to satisfy my attorney, and that is with the all-important disclosure.

That disclosure is only you know your entire financial situation so look at this podcast and my blog and, really, anything on the internet as helpful hints and education because none of us know you. I don’t know anything about you. All we can do is share strategies and experiences from our journey. So, before you make any decisions based on anything talked about on this podcast or anywhere else, make sure you consult the people that know you best – whether that’s your tax advisor or your legal advisor or your financial advisor – because they can help customize things for your own situation. That’s not only a great legal disclosure, it really centers us when we start to talk about these things so that you don’t go make decisions without having all the information because this is just our opinions based on our journeys which might not apply to your situation.


With that, let’s turn to the Investing Corner. Let’s go over some dividend facts that you need to understand when you’re putting together your investment portfolio and why dividends can be important regardless of what age you are.


The first fact is, since 1930, dividends have represented over half of the total return on equities or of stocks – say, the S&P 500. Roughly half of your returns come from the dividends you receive on stocks and the dividends that are reinvested every single year. So, if you’re focused – because you’re young – on capital appreciation only, you’re missing the boat on roughly what’s been half of all the returns on equities going back to 1930. Dividends can be important regardless of what age you are.


The second fact that you should understand about dividends is that, in 2012, the American Taxpayer Relief Act was passed and what that did is it lowered the tax rate on qualified dividends. So, historically, dividends were taxed at your tax bracket. If you were in the 35 percent tax bracket, you would pay 35 percent tax on any dividends or dividend inter income that came into your account every single year.


Well, in 2012, that changed. Now, for qualified dividends, if you’re below roughly the 35 percent tax bracket, those dividends are taxed at 15 percent so that means, each year, you have more money to reinvest to buy more shares into your portfolio which increases at compounding effect which is ultimately what we’re trying to do with investments, and even if you’re in a higher tax bracket, let’s say your taxable earnings are over $400,000 or $450,000 as a couple, your dividends are taxed at 20 percent so roughly half of what your income tax would be if you’re in the top tax bracket and, again, that means you have income coming in every year that you can reinvest to compound and build wealth over a very long period of time which is the purpose of investing, ultimately.


The third fact is dividends on average for the S&P 500 index have grown each year by about 5.5 percent. So, each year, the dividend rate or the income that you get off of a portfolio increases by about 5.5 percent. That’s an awesome inflation hedge and it’s an awesome way of generating more and more income that you can reinvest to buy more and more shares, and maybe ultimately take out as income later in life.


And then, lastly, dividends offer a potential buffer against volatility. What do I mean by that? Well, if you think about it, if you have a portfolio and all you’re dependent upon is capital pre-appreciation – that’s stock price going up – to make money, well, when you go through very volatile situations and all you own are equities that don’t pay dividends, say those equities go down by 30 percent plus like they did in 2008, they may languish there for a time potentially. The whole time you own those equities, you’re not getting paid to own them; you only realize your gain or profit when you ultimately sell it, assuming it’s above where you bought it. Well, dividends change that dynamic a little bit – well, not a little bit, a lot!


When you own equities that pay dividends, and let’s say they go through a really bad market cycle, yes, it hurts on paper because you see the value relative to what you pay for, each year, you’re getting paid to own those companies. You’re getting paid dividends, a share of whatever profit those companies are generating regardless of what the actual market price of the security is, and that can do a lot to buffer the volatility in your portfolio and give you a little bit smoother of a ride over time because you always have dividends and income coming in from the portfolio that you own.


It’s no different than owning a business. If you own a business and say you invest in a business, if you’re investing just simply to own it, hopefully it gets better, and then ultimately sell it, it’s very binary – meaning that you only realize a return when you ultimately sell it which is very dependent on one thing. That’s very different than buying into a business and being able to draw income from the earnings of that business every single year and then hopefully be able to sell it over time.


The other reason that companies that pay dividends can be a potential buffer against volatility is typically for a company to pay a dividend via their stock, there are going to companies that have a very strong earnings record and have good cash flows. Companies rarely change their dividend rates. So, if a company is going to pay you a dividend just to own it, they’re going to be positioned financially to be able to consistently pay that dividend. Typically, they don’t choose to switch it around a lot. It’s generally a fixed rate that they try to maintain. So, they’re going to have to be more conservative on their balance sheet to make sure that they can meet that consistent dividend rate that they’ve stayed in.


Now, all of these dividend facts don’t mean that everybody needs to own a ton of equities that pay dividends. My point is, most people think of dividend income and income investing only for older people when they’re trying to get income to supplement their lifestyle. But, really, dividends can be an important component for anybody in dampening volatility, generating compounding through reinvesting the dividends, and it’s not necessarily meant for everybody, but it’s something that you should consider when you’re constructing your portfolios regardless of how old you are.


All right. Well, in our Retirement Tip of the Week, we have an interview with Ed Slott on IRA planning.


Now, Ed was named “The Best Source for IRA Advice” by the Wall Street Journal and called “America’s IRA Expert” by Mutual Fund Magazine. He is a nationally recognized IRA distribution expert, a professional speaker, and the creator of several public television specials, including the most recent, “Ed Slott’s Retirement Rescue” and Ed also has a number of books out on Amazon that spell out a lot of the rules about IRA planning. So, I think this is going to be a very valuable conversation.



Here’s my conversation with Ed Slott.


ROGER: What I wanted to talk about today were three basic topics – saving for retirement, your “forever tax, never tax” strategy, how do you get it out once you are in retirement and then how do you give it.


Let’s start off with saving for retirement. In your experience, what’s the hierarchy of where people should be saving when they’re in that savings mode for retirement planning?


ED: Well, it depends where they’re working. First, if they’re working for a company and the company happens to have a 401K like many do, then they’re better off saving there if there’s matching. A lot of companies match and that’s free money. So, you should get every ounce of that you can.


Then, the next level, if you’ve maxed that out, obviously, if you don’t have enough to max that out, but you have to do something and the best way to do something is have it on autopilot or whatever you have to do – that old saying, “Pay yourself first.” Take it off the top so you never see it. That’s why a 401K is so good because you never see it; it comes right off the top.


Then, after you fill up the 401K and get the maximum match, then I would go to a ROTH IRA. A ROTH IRA has certain limitations and income limitations so not everyone can do it, but most workers can because the income limits are high and you can put, for 2014, another $5,500 in a ROTH IRA and, if you’re 50 or over, another $1,000 so that’s $6,500 a year if you’re 50 or over – if you’re under 50, $5,500. So, that would be the neck full level, and if you did just that, that could be a lot, you would be in very good shape because, remember, you can put in, you can defer up to $17,500 into your 401K, plus matching, plus a catch-up contribution if you’re 50 or over. So, that’s a lot to put away.


Most people are not going to get past that, but if they can and they have other money, it’s good to do a ROTH IRA too, even if you have to pull from savings to make a ROTH IRA contribution. All you’re doing is changing pockets from, as you said before, from “forever tax to never tax.” The ROTH contributions you make, you might say, “Well, what if I need the money?” With ROTH contributions which most people don’t understand, that money – the contributions – can be withdrawn any time for any reason, tax and penalty-free. Now, you’d like to keep it in there to keep growing tax-free, but you have access to the contributions at any time, so why not switch pockets and get that money in a ROTH every year?


ROGER: And that’s usually one of the big deterrents for most people. They think, “Well, if I put it in there, I can never get at it if an emergency strikes.”


ED: Well, that’s why it’s much better than a traditional IRA. With a traditional IRA, yes, you get a tax deduction maybe. If you pull it out, you have all these penalties. The ROTH removes that, plus it grows tax-free.


ROGER: Now, let’s go back to the 401K for a second. If your employer offers a ROTH option for your contribution, should that be the first step or should you build that tax-deferred bucket?


ED: Well, that’s a personal choice. I believe in the ROTH 401K first. I like building tax-free so you never have to pay for it later. Again, it comes off the top. But, in effect, you pay tax on that going in, but you really don’t see it because it comes off the top. So, if you’re used to getting a tax refund maybe because you put money in a 401K, maybe that won’t be the case anymore. But you’re building tax-free savings in a ROTH 401K.


ROGER: And then, still, any employer contributions don’t go in as a tax-deferred contribution so you get two buckets, I guess.


ED: Right. Right. Matching can’t go into a ROTH 401K.


ROGER: Now, that sort of turns on its head the whole historical concept of pay taxes later when you’re in a lower tax bracket.


ED: Well, again, everybody has to do their own soul-searching or math or whatever they think. You know, there are a lot of people that say the opposite of what I’m saying. They say, “Why would I pay tax now if I could defer it for 30 years?” and my answer to that is, “Well, all those 30 years, you almost have to hope you make no money because any money you make, you’re going to share with the government at some future tax rate.”


Right now, we know what the tax rates are and they’re relatively low – historically low I should say, probably the lowest most people have seen in their working lives. So, it hits me, the only place that rates can go – tax rates – is up and I wouldn’t want to take that chance for myself and I haven’t done that. Everything I’m saying, I’ve done for myself. I try to get all of my IRAs into ROTHs so I never have to worry about what future tax rates could do to my retirement savings just when I need it the most. Imagine going in at 70 years old and now it’s a 50 percent tax rate on all of those gains for 30 years. Now, you can eliminate all of that by paying for the privilege up front so that’s my two cents on why I think ROTH IRAs are better.


The opposite argument, people say, “What if the government changes the rules?” and I don’t think that’s going to happen – of course, anything’s possible – but the ROTH IRA, first of all, it would be political suicide if they changed their minds on it. It’d be like Congress pulling a double cross or something. It would (00:16:38 unclear) on a tax-free promise.


But the big reason that I don’t think Congress will change the ROTH IRA and make it taxable is that this is the magic provision our legislators have been looking for for over 200 years – something that brings money into the government and people like it. It brings money in. We’ve never had anything like this. This is the golden goose. It brings money in. The only money that can get in a ROTH IRA is already taxed money. So, the government is already using it to fill gaps in the budget. In the last few tax bills, they’ve expanded ROTH 401Ks – specifically ROTH 401Ks – just to create income to pay for other things. They’re using it as a cash cow so, you know, I think you’re pretty good with the ROTH IRA.


ROGER: Yeah, and I’ve had clients come into our practice that had only tax-deferred money, especially doctors and professionals that are worried about liability, and they have a tax nightmare because that’s their only liquid assets to draw retirement income from. So, it definitely doesn’t give you a lot of tax diversity.


ED: Well, that was the only thing that was available back then. ROTH only came out in 1998. I mean, I wish I had the ability to do a ROTH from Day One when I started saving. But that was the only way to do it, the tax-deferred IRA or 401K, and then even the floodgates really didn’t open up until 2010 when hiring people could convert to ROTH IRAs.


Before 2010, if you made more than $100,000 – which some people still think is the rule, by the way – if you made more than $100,000, you couldn’t convert. Those rules have all been repealed. Everybody can convert. Bill Gates can convert if he has an IRA>


ROGER: Now, if you’ve maxed out your 401K, and let’s say you make too much money to contribute to a ROTH, would the next strategy be – and, obviously, every situation is different – be to make a non-deductible contribution to an IRA and then immediately convert it?


ED: Yeah. People call that a “backdoor ROTH” but there’s no problem with it. IRS has had plenty of time to say something or write rules prohibiting it but they haven’t and the rules actually encourage it. So, you make a non-deductible IRA contribution then you convert it to a ROTH.


The only difference is – and this is where you have to know what you’re doing or have an advisor that knows these rules, and most get confused by it – you will end up with a ROTH but it’s a different kind of ROTH. It’s a converted ROTH which means, like I said before, with a ROTH contribution, you can pull out your contributions any time for any reason, tax and penalty-free, but that’s not the rule when you do a backdoor ROTH and the money goes in as a conversion. In that case, if you’re under 59 and a half, and haven’t held the converted funds for five years, you’ll pay a 10 percent penalty on anything withdrawn.


ROGER: Yeah, and that’s very important. So, if you have traditional ROTH or contributions, I assume you’d want to keep those separate?


ED: No, you don’t have to, and that’s another thing. This is why you need to work with advisors. Either educate yourself or work with advisors that have specialized knowledge in this area. Most don’t.


All ROTH IRAs are considered one ROTH IRA in the government and the tax law’s view. You keep track yourself of what the contributions are, what the conversions are, and the interest, and there are ordering rules that say which money comes out first. So, keeping it separate is not going to do anything.


You have to know what you’ve put in as contributions, what you’ve put in as conversions, and the rest has got to be earnings. The ordering rules say the first money out is your own contributions, the next money out is conversions, and the last money out is earning, and you have to know which layer you have in your own ROTH.


ROGER: Okay. Now, when you’re talking about doing this “never tax” strategy.


ED: “Forever tax to never tax.” One of my favorite sayings because I believe the best retirement is an account you don’t have to share with Uncle Sam.


ROGER: Now, are there situations where it doesn’t make sense to convert?


ED: Well, if you honestly believe that you’ll be in a low bracket throughout retirement then maybe it doesn’t. Or we have people that just don’t want to write the check upfront. Or we even have people that have the money to pay the tax but don’t want to because their plan is basically to leave it to their kids who might be in much lower brackets and, if you have a traditional IRA and you’re leaving it to, say, three children, and you think they will have lower brackets plus they split it over three different returns so they can end up with a much lower tax. Or you just don’t have the money to pay the tax.


I always say there’s three questions to ask yourself – what, when, and where? What do you think your future tax rate with be? When you do think you’re going to need the money? If you’re going to need the money, a ROTH conversion doesn’t pay. It does not pay to pay a tax upfront if you’re going to just take it out in five or ten years. And where question is where will you get the money from to pay the tax? If you don’t have the money to pay the tax, it’s not for you. It’s not for everybody.


It’s an opportunity for people who believe they may be in a higher bracket later on or want to do it as an estate planning move because one of the big benefits of a ROTH IRA is that once the money is in a ROTH IRA, there are no required minimum distributions starting at age 70 and a half like you would have with a traditional IRA.


That’s a big benefit for people who don’t think they will need the money – like I said, as an estate planning vehicle. This way, they never have to touch the ROTH. It can grow tax-free. They never have to withdraw – unless they voluntarily want to – leaving much more money to their kids who can inherit it income tax-free as well and maybe even estate tax-free if they’re under the estate exemption. So, it’s a good estate planning vehicle. Those are people that probably should, but the people who shouldn’t are people that don’t have the money to pay the tax, think they’re in a low tax bracket, or just don’t want to pay tax upfront.


ROGER: One key that I heard there, especially if this money is not for you, if you know that you probably aren’t going to use it and pass it on, then the timeline is so long that it really makes sense.


ED: Right. You know, certain people, if you think you’re going to need the money, don’t do it. Like my mother saw me on one of my PBS shows and she said, “Eddy, should I do that ROTH?” I said, “Ma, don’t watch that stuff! Don’t listen to that! That’s not for you. You need your money. Why would you pay a tax? You need every cent. Don’t listen to that.” So, you know, it’s not for everybody.


ROGER: So, if you’re going to need your IRA assets and you’re in a tax-deferred account, in your research, what is the crossover timeline? I’m 47; I’m probably going to need my tax-deferred moneys. What’s the crossover time-wise to making it worthwhile?


ED: Well, there’s a crossover and there’s an age. If you say you’re 47, I’d say definitely go with the ROTH because you have enough years. The cost of paying the tax upfront is probably worth the benefit of maybe not having to touch it for 20 years, but I’d say ten years or less. If you’re going to touch the money within ten years or less, then it doesn’t bother. It also doesn’t pay to pay a tax upfront.


The big benefit of the ROTH IRA is longevity – keeping it tax-free over the longest period of time. That’s where the big snowball effect happens. So, if you kill it before it gets to really snowball, it’s not worth it. Also, somebody, I would say, 70 years old or older that plans on using it for themselves, it doesn’t pay to convert because, given the life expectancy, if you’re using it for yourself, it doesn’t pay. The cost of paying the taxes upfront is not worth the benefit because, if you plan on using it, given your life expectancy, it won’t pay.


ROGER: Got it. Got it.


ED: Now, those are general rules.


ROGER: Understood.


ED: You know, I’ve had clients actually that said, “You know what? I just can’t stand these required distributions. Let me convert everything then I never have to worry about it.”



ED: It comes out to about 8 percent tax-free guaranteed by the government if you hold off till age 70. So, you’re better off using your IRA in your 60s. Then, at 70, you’ll have lower required distributions on your IRA because you took some of that down, probably lower income and higher social security.


ROGER: Yeah, and that’s definitely something most people don’t think about. They’re so worried, you know, the vitriol about social security is so strong. They say, “Give it to me as quickly as I can!”


ED: Right, that’s a mistake for most people. Unless you absolutely need the money, holding off till 70 is your best bet.


ROGER: Yeah, and that makes total sense and I like that.


ED: The hierarchy would be use the tax-deferred IRA money. Then, if it’s tax-deferred, you have to stop withdrawing it at 70 and a half or you could convert it to a ROTH and stop that and then take social security. You should never delay social security beyond 70 because you can’t get any more after that.


ROGER: Right, there’s no automatic increase in what your benefit is.


Now, let’s go to what are some of the biggest mistakes you see with IRA planning? You know, things that people should look out for that are either they’re not thinking about…


ED: Well, not understanding the various movement rules, rollover rules. People forget that the IRAs and 401Ks are ruled by a bunch of complex tax rules that kind of strangle these accounts. It’s a complex web of rules that can wipe out your retirement savings if you don’t know how to navigate them and people always ask me, “Why is it so complicated all these rules?” Because, like I said before, the government, Uncle Sam is a partner on your account and they want to make sure that nothing leaks out without them getting their cut so they have all these rules to make sure you don’t forget about them. And the rules are, like I said, not only complex but loaded with penalties as well if you make a mistake. So, you’ve got to be very careful on how you withdraw IRA money and the biggest mistake is even moving money.


For example, the rollover rules for IRAs just changed drastically this year. Most people, most advisors don’t even know it, but this once per year IRA rollover rule is very dangerous now because it literally is one move per year. If you do a second move as a rollover, it’s the end of your retirement account. Most people don’t know that. They go to the bank, maybe a CD is coming due and they want to renew it and they end up doing a rollover not knowing they’ve done it. If they do that twice within 365 days, the second one, it could be their whole IRA, say $500,000, is taxable and there’s no fix for it. Now, they have no retirement account and a huge tax bill. That’s why you need to have an advisor that is up on these rules and that’s what we do as a company. We train retirement advisors in the specialized area of taking the money out.


For anybody that wants information on that, you can go to our website, www.irahelp.com, and look for Find an Advisor. Now, we don’t train on investments. I don’t do investments. My company doesn’t sell stocks, bonds, funds, insurance, annuities – none of that. This is specifically, as you said, taking the money out, the tax rules coming out.


You know, coming out of a retirement account, you may lose your money in the market, but the market goes up and down. It goes down, you lose your money. It comes back up, you get it back. But, if you lose your retirement savings to tax mistakes, you’re never getting that money back.


ROGER: Yeah, those are not fixable.


ED: That’s gone forever.


ROGER: Yeah, those are not fixable.


ED: So, it’s a specialized field that most advisors don’t take training in. You know, we offer the premier training in the country for financial advisors so you can find an advisor that is trained on the tax rules by us on our website, and most advisors don’t have that training because, when they became advisors, they were trained to help people make money which is great. But, if you lose it on the way out, what have you done? You’ve built a savings account for Uncle Sam and he’s not even your real uncle!


ROGER: Well, Ed, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on IRA planning and retirement planning. You definitely are a prolific educator and advocate for understanding these complex rules to maximize your savings for retirement so thank you so much for joining me today.


ED: Okay. No problem. Thank you!


That was great for Ed to spend some time with us talking about IRAs, ROTH IRAs, and where you should be saving for retirement and some of the strategies that might be appropriate for you.


Well, I want to thank you so much for joining me today. I hope you found value in today’s podcast.


If you have a retirement question or concern or worry or something that’s just on your mind, go to rogerwhitney.com and click on You Ask, I ANSWER. If you ask me that question, I promise I’ll respond to you personally, and possibly answer it either via the blog or on this podcast. And, more than likely, if you have a question or a concern, probably thousands of other people have the same issue that they’re dealing with in their life, and that way, together, we can all learn to plan well and invest wisely together.


All right. Well, I’m off. You have a wonderful day. And, until next week, focus on living well today without sacrificing your tomorrow.


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