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Roth IRA conversion can be a good bet Tax rules allow lots of leeway

Investors who convert a traditional Individual Retirement Account into two or more Roth accounts to make a bet on the market rising can save on taxes if it doesn't.

The multiple Roth IRAs should be split among different investments, according to Joseph Spada, managing director of Summit Financial Resources in Parsippany, N.J. A conversion can be reversed if some of the assets lose value, saving $140,000 in income taxes, for example, on an account worth $1.2 million.

"The [Internal Revenue Service] is giving you a bucket of mulligans with your IRA," said John Bledsoe, a Dallas-based estate planner, referring to the term used in golf for a do-over. Investors who convert to a Roth IRA have until Oct. 17, 2011, to undo their decisions and recoup taxes paid, said Bledsoe, author of "The Gospel of Roth."

The IRS lifted income restrictions this year on converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, meaning taxpayers making more than $100,000 a year in adjusted income can make the transfer. There's no limit on conversions if an investor has multiple IRAs or a cap on the amount that can be converted.

Those who switch from a traditional IRA, where taxes are paid only on withdrawals, to a Roth IRA, must pay income taxes upfront in exchange for tax-free withdrawals during retirement. A taxpayer in the top income bracket with an IRA worth $1.2 million would pay 35 percent or $420,000 in federal taxes when converting the account into a Roth IRA this year.

A $1.2 million account could be divided into three Roth IRAs worth $400,000 each, Spada said. The first account may be invested in fixed income, the second in equities and the third in high-yield bonds. If one fund lost value, the investor would save the 35 percent tax paid on the $400,000 account, or $140,000, by recharacterizing that Roth IRA into a traditional one, Spada said.

"You don't want to pay the tax on an account that actually went down in value," Spada said. Undoing the conversion doesn't change the fact you lost money on your investments, which is why investors shouldn't take more risk than they normally would when converting to multiple Roth IRAs, he said.

Theodore Lustig converted his family's IRA into three Roth accounts with different asset types on Jan. 4. The 55-year-old attorney put the first account in fixed income, the second in oil stocks and the third in U.S. bank stocks.

"You have a free look," said Lustig, who's based in Dallas. "You have until October 2011 to see how your investments have performed."

Lustig said he could reverse the conversion on accounts that decline or, "if everything works out," pay a lower tax on income from accounts converted in January that rise in value.

T. Rowe Price says the number of clients making Roth conversions is three times greater this year compared with the same period in 2009, said Heather McDonold, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore-based company.

USAA, which sells financial services primarily to military families, saw a 500 percent increase in Roth IRA conversions in the first week of January compared with the same week last year, said the San Antonio-based company with 7.3 million members.

About 37.5 million American households held a traditional IRA in 2008 with $3.2 trillion in assets. That compares with 18.6 million households and $165 billion in assets with a Roth IRA, according to the Washington-based Investment Company Institute, a mutual-fund trade group.

A Roth conversion works best when an investor can pay the taxes with funds outside the IRA and leave the proceeds to children or grandchildren, said Bill Fleming, managing director in the Private Company Services Group for New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers.

"The key with the Roth conversion is you need to have it cooking for as long as possible before taking the distributions," Fleming said. Passing the account to heirs lets it grow tax-free. Future withdrawals are also tax-free. Taxpayers subject to the estate tax in the future should consider converting because paying the tax upfront on the Roth may lower their estate's value, he said.

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