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Integrating Roth IRA With Social Security Benefits

social security by Fabricator of Useless ArticlesThere are some great benefits to be had from converting funds from a traditional IRA or a 401k to a Roth IRA. But that doesn’t mean that everyone within earshot should just willy-nilly go off and convert their IRAs to Roth IRAs. One factor that many folks likely haven’t thought about is integrating Roth IRA with Social Security to reduce taxes.

Taxation of Social Security

As you may be aware, depending upon your “provisional income”, various amounts of your Social Security benefits may be taxable. At this time, for example, if your provisional income is more than $34,000 (or $44,000 for a married couple), then up to 85% of your benefits would be taxed. Less than $34,000 ($44,000 for a married couple) but more than $25,000 ($32,000 for marrieds), up to 50% of your Social Security benefit is taxable. Less than $25,000 ($32,000 for a married couple) and your Social Security benefit may be untaxed.

Provisional income is your adjusted gross income (AGI, the amount in line 7 of form 1040) plus tax-exempt interest earned for the year, plus ½ of the amount of your Social Security benefit. So the trick is to limit your AGI, in order to reduce the amount of Social Security benefits that are taxed, if possible. One way to do this is to generate income from a Roth IRA, which is not only tax-free, but isn’t counted toward the AGI.

A Tale of Two Taxpayers

Two taxpayers, Stevie and Christine, both age 62 and retired, have vastly different outcomes for their tax situations. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say that both women are single, and are collecting identical Social Security benefits of $20,000, and that each has a total income requirement of $60,000 each year. In addition, each of the women has a pension available, which will either pay out a $40,000 payment each year, or is available as a lump sum for rollover at the amount of $600,000.

Stevie

Stevie decides to take the pension payments of $40,000 per year. Come tax time, she learns that she will have to pay tax on 85% of her Social Security benefit ($17,000) because her provisional income adds up to $50,000, which is above the $34,000 limit mentioned above. So the tax on this amount ($40,000 pension plus 85% of SS, or $17,000) is $5,714, or roughly 9.5% of her total income. Assuming that nothing changes about the situation, Stevie can count on paying around 9.5% of her income in tax for the rest of her life.

Christine – Option 1

Christine, on the other hand, takes a look at the numbers and decides that it might make more sense to attack the situation differently. She takes the lump-sum payout from her pension plan and rolls the money over into an IRA. If Christine were to simply leave things this way and start taking a distribution of $40,000 each year, she would have exactly the same tax treatment that Stevie is getting. However, if Christine should decide to do a conversion of the IRA to a Roth IRA in 2019, she would be paying tax of approximately $188,000, leaving her with a net balance in the Roth account of roughly $412,000.

Now Christine pays no tax (under current laws) for the rest of her life! Given that her provisional income cannot be more than the limits, her Social Security benefit will never be taxed. And since all of her income comes from the Roth IRA, there is no tax owed at all. But this is a very high price to pay up front – roughly 1/3 of her IRA account. Christine would need to take this tax-free income for around 32 years, as long as income tax rates stay the same. If the income tax rates rise, the break-even time would be less, of course.

Christine – Option 2

But what if Christine instead took her income requirement each year (the same as Stevie), paying the roughly 9.5% tax, but then took an additional amount from the IRA and converted it to a Roth? If she converts $50,000 in the first two years, the additional tax would amount to roughly $11,200 each year. Having done this for two years, Christine can take (for example) $5,000 of her required income from the Roth. The result is to reduce the amount of her provisional income to only $45,000, thereby reducing the amount of her Social Security benefit that is taxed each year to approximately 70%. Now Christine’s annual tax would be reduced to $4,204, a savings of $1,500 per year in taxes.

Christine – Option 3

What if Christine did the conversion of $50,000 for five years in a row, paying a total of $56,000 in tax? Her provisional income is now only $40,000, reducing the amount of her Social Security benefit that is taxed each year to approximately 50%. The difference, $10,000 each year, is taken from the Roth IRA at no tax impact. Now Christine’s annual tax is reduced to $3,094, a savings of $2,700 per year in taxes.

Summary

There’s a lot of math going on in this article! The point was to show how this Roth IRA conversion activity isn’t just a question for the rich. It can have an impact on folks at all levels of income. It can be very costly to do nothing! On the other hand it can be quite lucrative to do some planning for integrating Roth IRA with Social Security. As always, talk to your financial professional before making any dramatic moves, just to make sure you’ve got it right.

Note – for the purpose of illustration, I used current tax rates throughout the examples. I realize that rates are likely to increase in years ahead. This will only make the illustrations I’ve done here look better for the Roth conversion early on at our historically low rates (in most cases).

3 Comments

  1. Marty says:

    Would you advise continuing moderate ($20K per year) Roth conversions even if they will not bring my income under the SS taxable threshold when I start taking it? Because of RMDs, a small pension, SS and investment income I expect to be in the 22 – 24% marginal tax bracket. I have been doing conversions filling up the 12% and just slightly in the 22% brackets for about 10 years (left the work force early).

    1. jblankenship says:

      Yes, I think this makes sense, especially in our current historically-low tax rate climate. 12% tax is likely to look pretty attractive in the coming future!

      1. Marty says:

        Thank you. I think so as well. I’d like to get to a 50-50 Roth/IRA split before taking social security but that is probably a bit of a stretch. We’ll see. If there is a big market sell off, I can take advantage of that.

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