Implementing A Roth IRA Conversion Using Life Insurance
People who care about their loved ones often want to pass on the assets they own which have the greatest potential for future value. An asset which many financial experts suggest is a great one to inherit is a Roth IRA. Unfortunately, many people don’t have Roth IRAs to pass on to their loved ones.
This article will discuss why a Roth IRA can be an excellent asset to inherit and explain two ways an IRA owner may help his family inherit one.
Many People Have Traditional IRAs
Many working Americans have at least one tax-qualified account in which they are saving funds to help pay retirement expenses. There are a number of different kinds of tax-qualified accounts but, for simplicity, we’ll use the labels “traditional IRA” or “IRA” for all of them except a Roth IRA.
Generally, traditional IRAs are financially attractive because they offer the opportunity for tax-deferred growth on investment earnings. These accounts give ordinary taxpayers a valuable income tax benefit because contributions come from pre-tax dollars. The ability to defer income taxes on both contributions and earnings helps such an account value grow. Many people are saving substantial sums for retirement this way.
Distributions Are Taxable. Congress created IRAs to be used as retirement savings tools, not wealth transfer tools. Consequently, funds must begin to be distributed from these IRAs no later than the year after the year in which the owner reaches age 701/2. These distributions are fully taxed as ordinary income when they are paid out. When an account owner dies, the balance must continue to be distributed to named beneficiaries.
From a beneficiary’s point of view, an IRA isn’t always an attractive asset to inherit. That’s because an IRA account balance must continue to be distributed whether beneficiaries need the money or not. Further, an IRA doesn’t qualify for a step up in basis at the owner’s death. Thus every dollar distributed is taxed as ordinary income. A beneficiary with a 25 percent marginal income tax bracket who receives a $10,000 distribution will only have $7,500 left to spend after income taxes. Although income tax deferral continues for IRA earnings, the beneficiary will have to pay income taxes on every dollar distributed.
The Roth IRA
In 1998 Congress created the Roth IRA. Although funded with after-tax dollars, Roth IRAs are attractive because they have two important features not available in traditional IRAs: (1) all distributions are federal income tax-free and (2) there are no required minimum distributions during the owner’s lifetime.
When a Roth IRA is properly set up and managed, investment growth isn’t just income tax-deferred, it is income tax-free. Moreover Roth IRA owners decide when to take distributions; they are not required to take any distributions while they are alive. Thus, Roth IRA owners have an opportunity to combine income tax savings with distribution flexibility. Roth IRA owners can leave funds in their account to grow income tax-free until they are needed.
Passing on a Roth IRA. Roth IRAs can be effective wealth transfer tools. After a Roth IRA owner’s death, investment growth on the remaining account balance continues to be income tax-free. Distributions to beneficiaries are not subject to income taxes, but they must begin in the year after the year of the owner’s death and are based on life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary. This combination of features can make a Roth IRA a much more attractive asset for a beneficiary to inherit than a traditional IRA.
Informed heirs usually prefer to inherit Roth IRAs instead of traditional IRAs because they have the potential to produce more after-tax spendable income. If given the choice of inheriting a $500,000 traditional IRA or a $500,000 Roth IRA, many people would choose the Roth IRA. The prospect of income-tax-free distributions is simply more attractive.
When Congress created the Roth IRA, it also created a procedure for converting traditional IRAs into Roth IRAs. Initially some qualifications had to be satisfied before a conversion could take place. Those qualifications ended in 2010. Now the only thing a traditional IRA owner must do in order to convert all or part of the account into a Roth IRA is to recognize the converted amount as taxable income in the year of the conversion and pay income taxes accordingly.
Currently, most Roth IRA conversions take place while the original owner is alive. For best financial results, it is recommended that income taxes be paid from funds outside the Roth IRA. In this way the Roth IRA’s income tax advantages of tax-free growth and tax-free distributions can be maximized.
Although most IRA owners know about the opportunity to convert their traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, many decline to do so because they don’t want to pay additional income taxes or they don’t have sufficient liquid funds outside their IRA to pay the income taxes. They like the idea of turning taxable income into tax-free income, but they don’t want to pay the income tax cost of the conversion. It’s possible that if more IRA owners had extra cash to pay the income taxes, there would be more conversions to Roth IRAs.
Planning for a Roth IRA Conversion at the Owner’s Death. For traditional IRA owners who would like to convert but who don’t have liquid funds to pay the resulting income taxes, full or partial conversion after their deaths as part of their wealth transfer plans may make sense.
Such a conversion could potentially take place after the account owner’s death if three conditions are met:
1. The owner is married at the time of his death and is survived by his spouse.
2. The spouse is the IRA’s primary beneficiary.
3. Money outside the IRA is available to pay income taxes.
When a surviving spouse is primary beneficiary of an IRA, he may elect to roll over the IRA into his own name. After the rollover, the spouse may elect to fully or partially convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.
The costs to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA are the state and federal income taxes on the portion of the traditional IRA the spouse wishes to convert. Often, finding the money to pay these taxes is the key to the conversion.
Alternatives for Paying a Spouse’s Income Tax Costs. A spouse may have several sources of funds available to pay income taxes triggered by the conversion. The money needed could be borrowed or there may be cash in a checking, savings or money market account. Or, a spouse may have inherited other assets from the deceased spouse’s estate that are relatively liquid. Additionally, some assets inherited from the deceased spouse will receive a step up in cost basis. If the spouse is amenable, these assets could be sold soon after the account owner’s death without generating significant capital gains taxes. These are some of the options available if the planning approach relies on the use of existing assets to fund the Roth IRA conversion.
Life Insurance Can Help Pay the Income Taxes. Spouses who don’t wish to use liquid assets or sell assets to fund a Roth IRA conversion should consider using life insurance death benefits to pay tax costs. An existing policy insuring the account owner can be used or a new policy can be purchased if the account owner is insurable. Life insurance is an attractive funding tool because the premiums paid are leveraged into larger death benefits that are income tax-free.
If needed, dollars needed to pay policy premiums can even come from distributions from a traditional IRA. If an account owner is over 591/2, IRA distributions do not carry a 10 percent premature distribution penalty; if an account owner is under 591/2, penalty-free distributions to pay premiums can be received under the rules of IRC Section 72(t). After the income taxes on the IRA distribution have been paid, the after-tax portion of the distribution can be used to pay policy premiums.
Step-by-step here’s how a new life insurance policy can fund the conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA after an account owner’s death:
1. The IRA owner names the spouse as primary IRA beneficiary.
2. The IRA owner buys a life insurance policy on his own life and pays the annual premium; the spouse is policy beneficiary.
3. At the owner’s death, the spouse rolls the IRA over into his own name.
4. The spouse decides how much of the traditional IRA to convert into a Roth IRA.
5. The spouse receives the life insurance death benefits.
6. The spouse uses some or all of the life insurance death benefits to pay the income taxes resulting from the conversion.
7. The spouse names the children as beneficiaries of the Roth IRA and takes distributions from it as needed during his life.
8. The Roth IRA beneficiaries receive distributions after the surviving spouse’s death.
The Life Insurance Death Benefits May Be Protected from Estate Taxes. Life insurance death benefits will be included in the estate of the IRA owner; however, to the extent the spouse is policy beneficiary, the death benefits should qualify for an estate tax marital deduction (if the spouse is a U.S. citizen). The net effect is that no estate taxes will be assessed on the death benefits at the owner’s death. Any death benefits remaining at the surviving spouse’s death will be included in the spouse’s taxable estate.
How Does a Surviving Spouse Benefit from Such a Conversion? A surviving spouse may gain several financial benefits from such a conversion. As owner of a Roth IRA, he will likely enhance his financial flexibility in these ways:
• All Roth IRA distributions a spouse elects to take are income tax-free.
• No lifetime distributions are required.
• Any annual account growth is income tax-free.
• A spouse gets to name new beneficiaries to receive the Roth IRA account balance at his death.
• All distributions to those beneficiaries are income tax-free.
After the conversion a spouse can mix and match income from other sources with Roth IRA distributions as needed for retirement income.
What Happens If a Spouse Dies Before the IRA Owner? If a spouse dies before the traditional IRA owner, there won’t be any death benefits from the policy insuring the owner to pay income tax costs. Unless the owner remarries, a conversion cannot be made; only the owner can fully or partially convert to a Roth IRA.
There is a way to hedge against the possibility that the spouse dies before the IRA owner. By purchasing two policies—one on the owner and one on the spouse—there will be death benefits to fund a conversion no matter which spouse dies first.
Liquidity Planning to Avoid the Estate Tax
Assuming a spouse lives and completes conversion, a Roth IRA (and any IRAs not converted) are included in his estate for estate tax purposes at death. If the estate is large enough to trigger estate taxes, it is critical that these taxes are not paid from a Roth IRA.
Taking distributions to pay estate taxes will reduce a Roth IRA’s unique ability to build wealth for the family. Every dollar distributed from it to pay estate taxes is a dollar that is no longer able to potentially generate tax-free income each year for the children as beneficiaries.
Estate liquidity planning is the best way to assure that distributions aren’t taken from a Roth IRA to make estate tax and estate settlement payments. Life insurance payable at a surviving spouse’s death is an excellent source of cash to pay estate taxes. A policy on the surviving spouse’s life or a second-to-die policy insuring both spouses will pay death benefits at the second death.
Such a policy may be owned in an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) or be owned by a third party to prevent the proceeds from adding to the estate tax problem. The ILIT or third party can lend the death benefits to the estate or purchase estate assets to provide the executor with the cash needed to pay estate taxes and settlement costs.
A second-to-die policy can be constructed to supply both liquidity to pay income taxes on the conversion to a Roth IRA as well as estate taxes due at the surviving spouse’s death when the estate is passed on to younger family members. A second-to-die policy can have a single life rider insuring the IRA owner and naming the surviving spouse as beneficiary. If the IRA owner dies first, the rider’s death benefits will go to the surviving spouse and can be used to pay income taxes arising from the conversion.
Who Should Consider a “Spousal” Roth IRA Conversion?
Owners of traditional IRAs should meet the following criteria in order to be realistic candidates for a life insurance-funded “spousal” Roth IRA conversion: (1) be married to a spouse who is likely to outlive them, (2) name this spouse as primary IRA beneficiary, (3) be healthy enough to qualify for life insurance coverage, and (4) be unlikely to use up the IRA during life.
Questions to Consider
IRA owners should consider these questions in evaluating a full or partial conversion to a Roth IRA:
• Do you expect to use up all your IRA money during your lifetime? If not, how much of it would you like to pass along to your spouse or children? What’s your plan for distributing the IRA account?
• Do you want to leave the money in the IRA and continue tax-deferred growth as long as possible?
• Who have you named as your IRA beneficiary?
• If there was a way you could transform your IRA balance from dollars that are fully taxed to dollars that would be completely income tax-free to your family, would you want to know about it?
• Does your wealth transfer plan provide your spouse a source of income tax-free dollars that could possibly increase his financial flexibility and security?
A Partial Roth IRA Conversion
Suppose the IRA owner expects to use some, but not all of his IRA before death. What’s a good strategy for a conversion to a Roth IRA?
A possible approach is for an owner to divide the IRA into two separate IRAs. One IRA would have a beginning balance equal to the amount the owner expects to use over the balance of his life; the other IRA would hold the remaining balance. He would take all voluntary and required distributions from the first IRA during the balance of his lifetime. Distributions for life insurance premiums would also come from this first IRA. The second IRA would be left to grow tax-deferred and free of distributions. At the owner’s death, the surviving spouse could convert this balance into a Roth IRA.
If an owner needs more funds to live on than are available in the first IRA, he would have the ability to tap the second IRA as needed for these additional expenses.
Some assets are better to inherit than others. Most spouses and heirs would rather inherit a Roth IRA than a traditional IRA. Traditional IRA owners who don’t want to spend money to convert to a Roth IRA themselves may be able to help their spouses convert to a Roth IRA. Funds to pay income taxes on the conversion can be provided by a life insurance policy insuring the IRA owner.
A surviving spouse can roll over the IRA to his own name, convert it into a Roth IRA and use policy death benefits to pay income taxes. A Roth IRA can provide an IRA owner’s spouse and children with a valuable, multi-generational financial tool. It’s “good stuff” to inherit.
A Roth IRA has the potential to enhance the surviving spouse’s financial security and may ultimately pass on more after-tax wealth to younger family members.
These materials are not intended to and cannot be used to avoid tax penalties. The ING Life Companies and their agents and representatives do not give tax or legal advice. This information is general in nature and not comprehensive, the applicable laws change frequently and the strategies suggested may not be suitable for everyone. Advice should be sought from tax and legal advisors regarding individual situations.
By Peter L. McCarthy for September 2012 issue of Broker World Magazine. Author’s Bio Peter L. McCarthy, JD, MBA, CLU, ChFC JD, MBA, CLU, ChFC, is a senior advanced sales consultant for ING’s life sales support.