Roth IRA Distributions versus Traditional IRAs

By | July 28, 2017

5 Secrets You Didn’t Know About Roth IRAs By Tim Parker | Updated July 28, 2017 — 6:00 AM EDT

Talk to any financial planner, investment advisor or financially savvy friend and the subject of the Roth IRA is likely to come up. People are in love with the Roth right now because – though you don’t get a tax deduction on your contributions (you contribute post-tax earnings) – you get many benefits when you retire that don’t go to people with a traditional IRA.

For starters, you’ll be able to take out your contributions and earnings tax free. For the second one, see point 5, below.

Of course, a Roth IRA isn’t the right choice for everybody (see Roth vs. Traditional IRA: Which is Right For You?). In fact, some don’t qualify (see point 3, below). But it’s worth knowing the ins and outs of whether this very attractive retirement vehicle makes sense for you.

5 Roth IRA Secrets

1. You Can Withdraw Money Whenever You Would Like

But that’s not what everybody tells you. You can’t touch the money until you turn 59½, right? You can’t touch your earnings, but you can withdraw your contributions any time you would like. It was your money to begin with and you paid taxes on it already so withdraw if you need to.

Most people are not aware of this. I’ve had CPAs mark these withdrawals as taxable events on clients’ tax returns, when in fact they are completely tax free since the contributions were made with after tax dollars.

Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If you take out the contributions, your earnings will drastically fall.

2. You Can Withdraw Your Earnings Penalty Free Under Certain Circumstances

Your contributions are yours to take at any time, but you don’t necessarily have to pay a penalty on your earnings either. If you’re buying a home for the first time, you can withdraw up to $10,000. If it’s for qualified education expenses, you become disabled or you use the money to pay for qualified medical expenses, those are also eligible under this provision.

As long as you’ve had the IRA for more than five years, these withdrawals are considered “qualified distributions” and are not subject to taxes or penalties. Be careful. There are other IRS rules that may apply. Speak to a tax professional before making the withdrawal.

3. A Roth IRA Is Not Open to Everybody

If a Roth IRA sounds like the perfect retirement account for you, don’t get too excited if you make a six-figure salary or more. For example, if your modified adjusted gross income is more than $196,000 as a married couple filing jointly in 2017, you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA. If it’s between $186,000 and $196,000 you can contribute a reduced amount. If you make below $186,000 you can contribute up to $5,500 in 2017 or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older.

If you aren’t married or have a different filing status, your amounts are different (click here for details). There is a back-door way to get a Roth if you don’t otherwise qualify. The back-door Roth IRA is an opportunity to obtain a Roth with a few extra steps versus the traditional route. Essentially, you contribute to a non-deductible IRA and immediately convert it to a Roth.

4. You Could Get a Tax Credit for Contributing

The IRS offers a Saver’s Credit, a tax credit on contributions of up to $4,000 to your Roth IRA if you’re married filing jointly. If you and your spouse make less than $37,000, you could receive a credit of 50% of your contributions in 2017. If your combined income is $37,001 to $40,000, you could get a 20% credit, and if it is $40,001 to $62,000, the credit drops to 10%. People with other filing statuses would receive less.

If you are younger or expecting to be in a higher tax bracket in retirement, then using the Saver’s Credit to help pay the taxes on Roth contributions can be very advantageous for you. This credit is also available for a traditional IRA and a number of workplace plans, such as a 401(k).

5. The Government Won’t Force You to Make Withdrawals

Traditional IRAs require that you start withdrawing your money, generally “by April 1 of the year following the year in which you turn age 70½.” Then, owners of traditional IRAs get to pay taxes on the withdrawal. Some exceptions apply, but the IRS levies stiff penalties if the person does not withdraw funds every year on schedule. Roth IRAs do not have a required minimum distribution (RMD). As long as the account owner is alive, there is no RMD.

If you make withdrawals after age 59½ and you’ve had the Roth IRA for at least five years, there is another bonus: “Roth IRA distributions do not count against income thresholds that may cause Social Security benefits to be taxed,” says Rebecca Dawson, an independent financial advisor in Los Angeles, Calif. The RMDs from traditional IRAs, on the other hand, do count as provisional income.

You can also control your tax situation in retirement by taking some money out of your Roth and some out of your other retirement plans that you do pay income tax on thereby reducing your taxes.s

The Bottom Line

The Roth IRA isn’t for everybody, but in this low-interest environment where every penny counts, it’s a topic of conversation for people serious about their retirement savings. Impress your friends and family with these five lesser-known facts. And most important, consider a Roth IRA if you qualify and haven’t already.

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