An individual retirement arrangement (IRA) is a personal savings plan that offers specific tax benefits. IRAs are one of the most powerful retirement savings tools available to you. Even if you're contributing to a 401(k) or other plan at work, you should also consider investing in an IRA.
The two major types of IRAs are traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Both allow you to contribute as much as $5,500 in 2017 (unchanged from 2016). You must have at least as much taxable compensation as the amount of your IRA contribution. But if you are married filing jointly, your spouse can also contribute to an IRA, even if he or she does not have taxable compensation. The law also allows taxpayers age 50 and older to make additional "catch-up" contributions. These folks can contribute up to $6,500 in 2017 (unchanged from 2016).
Both traditional and Roth IRAs feature tax-sheltered growth of earnings. And both give you a wide range of investment choices. However, there are important differences between these two types of IRAs. You must understand these differences before you can choose the type of IRA that's best for you.
Note: Special rules apply to certain reservists and national guardsmen called to active duty after September 11, 2001.
Both traditional and Roth IRAs feature tax-sheltered growth of earnings. And both give you a wide range of investment choices. However, there are important differences between these two types of IRAs.
Practically anyone can open and contribute to a traditional IRA. The only requirements are that you must have taxable compensation and be under age 70½. You can contribute the maximum allowed each year as long as your taxable compensation for the year is at least that amount. If your taxable compensation for the year is below the maximum contribution allowed, you can contribute only up to the amount that you earned.
Your contributions to a traditional IRA may be tax deductible on your federal income tax return. This is important because tax-deductible (pretax) contributions lower your taxable income for the year, saving you money in taxes. If neither you nor your spouse is covered by a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan, you can generally deduct the full amount of your annual contribution. If one of you is covered by such a plan, your ability to deduct your contributions depends on your annual income (modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI) and your income tax filing status.
For 2017, if you are covered by a retirement plan at work and:
For 2017, if you are not covered by a retirement plan at work, but your spouse is, and you file a joint tax return, your traditional IRA contribution is fully deductible if your MAGI is $186,000 or less. Your deduction is reduced if your MAGI is more than $186,000 and less than $196,000, and you can't deduct your contribution at all if your MAGI is $196,000 or more.
What happens when you start taking money from your traditional IRA? Any portion of a distribution that represents deductible contributions is subject to income tax because those contributions were not taxed when you made them. Any portion that represents investment earnings is also subject to income tax because those earnings were not previously taxed either. Only the portion that represents nondeductible, after-tax contributions (if any) is not subject to income tax. In addition to income tax, you may have to pay a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty if you're under age 59½, unless you meet one of the exceptions.
If you wish to defer taxes, you can leave your funds in the traditional IRA, but only until April 1 of the year following the year you reach age 70½. That's when you have to take your first required minimum distribution from the IRA. After that, you must take a distribution by the end of every calendar year until you die or your funds are exhausted. The annual distribution amounts are based on a standard life expectancy table and your previous year-end combined account balances. You can always withdraw more than you're required to in any year. However, if you withdraw less, you'll be hit with a 50 percent penalty on the difference between the required minimum and the amount you actually withdrew.
If you are covered by an employer-sponsored retirement plan and your MAGI exceeds certain
established thresholds, your deduction for your traditional IRA contribution is reduced or
eliminated as follows (these income ranges (other than married filing separately) are indexed for
inflation each year):
* If you're not covered by an employer plan, but your spouse is, your deduction is limited if your MAGI is $186,000 to $196,000, and eliminated if your MAGI exceeds $196,000.
Not everyone can set up a Roth IRA. Even if you can, you may not qualify to take full advantage of it. The first requirement is that you must have taxable compensation. If your taxable compensation in 2017 is at least $5,500, you may be able to contribute the full amount. But it gets more complicated. Your ability to contribute to a Roth IRA in any year depends on your MAGI and your income tax filing status.
Your contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible. You can invest only after-tax dollars in a Roth IRA. The good news is that if you meet certain conditions, your withdrawals from a Roth IRA will be completely income tax free, including both contributions and investment earnings. To be eligible for these qualifying distributions, you must meet a five-year holding period requirement. In addition, one of the following must apply:
Qualified distributions will also avoid the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. This ability to withdraw your funds with no taxes or penalties is a key strength of the Roth IRA. And remember, even nonqualified distributions will be taxed (and possibly penalized) only on the investment earnings portion of the distribution, and then only to the extent that your distribution exceeds the total amount of all contributions that you have made.
Another advantage of the Roth IRA is that there are no required distributions after age 70½ or at any time during your life. You can put off taking distributions until you really need the income. Or, you can leave the entire balance to your beneficiary without ever taking a single distribution.* Also, as long as you have taxable compensation and qualify, you can keep contributing to a Roth IRA after age 70½.
These income ranges (other than married filing separately) are indexed for inflation each year.
Assuming you qualify to use both, which type of IRA is best for you? Sometimes the choice is easy. The Roth IRA will probably be a more effective tool if you don't qualify for tax deductible contributions to a traditional IRA. However, if you can deduct your traditional IRA contributions, the choice is more difficult. Most professionals believe that a Roth IRA will still give you more bang for your dollars in the long run, but it depends on your personal goals and circumstances. The Roth IRA may very well make more sense if you want to minimize taxes during retirement and preserve assets for your beneficiaries. But a traditional deductible IRA may be a better tool if you want to lower your yearly tax bill while you're still working (and probably in a higher tax bracket than you'll be in after you retire). A financial professional or tax advisor can help you pick the right type of IRA for you.
Note: You can have both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, but your total annual contribution to all of the IRAs that you own cannot be more than $5,500 in 2017 ($6,500 if you're age 50 or older).
You can move funds from an IRA to the same type of IRA with a different institution (e.g., traditional to traditional, Roth to Roth). No taxes or penalty will be imposed if you arrange for the old IRA trustee to transfer your funds directly to the new IRA trustee. The other option is to have your funds distributed to you first and then roll them over to the new IRA trustee yourself. You'll still avoid taxes and penalty as long as you complete the rollover within 60 days from the date you receive the funds.
You may also be able to convert funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. This decision is complicated, however, so be sure to consult a tax advisor. He or she can help you weigh the benefits of shifting funds against the tax consequences and other drawbacks.
Note: The IRS has the authority to waive the 60-day rule for rollovers under certain limited circumstances, such as proven hardship.
Low and middle-income taxpayers may qualify for a tax credit
To claim the credit, you must be at least 18 years old and not a full-time student or a dependent on another taxpayer's return. The credit is in addition to any income tax deduction you might qualify for with respect to your IRA contribution. Here are the credit rates, based on 2017 MAGI limits:
These charts compare after-tax values for a Roth vs. a traditional IRA based on the assumptions that follow.
Result at retirement: Value of Roth IRA: $519,534. After-tax value of traditional IRA plus taxable
The same annual contribution is made at the end of each year until retirement. Earnings are compounded annually.
This illustration assumes that all traditional IRA contributions are fully tax deductible. However,
note that if either the IRA owner or the IRA owner's spouse participates in an
employer-sponsored retirement plan, the deductibility of contributions is subject to limitations
based on tax filing status and modified adjusted gross income. This illustration assumes that an
amount equal to the tax deduction each year is invested in a taxable account.
Withdrawals from traditional IRAs are subject to federal income tax to the extent that they consist
of deductible contributions and investment earnings. Withdrawals made before age 59½ may also be subject to a 10 percent penalty.
Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible. Depending on an individual's tax filing status
and modified adjusted gross income, allowable contributions to a Roth IRA may be limited.
Qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are not subject to federal income tax. Nonqualified
withdrawals of earnings before age 59½ may be subject to income tax and a 10 percent penalty.
Note: This is a hypothetical example and is not intended to reflect the actual performance of any specific investment, nor is it an estimate or guarantee of future value. Investment fees and expenses, which are generally different for taxable and tax-deferred investments, have not been deducted. If they had been, the results would have been lower. The lower maximum tax rates on capital gains and qualified dividends, as well as the tax treatment of investment losses, would make the taxable investment more favorable than is shown in this chart. When making an investment decision, investors should consider their personal investment horizons and income tax brackets, both current and anticipated, as these may further impact the results of this comparison. All investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal, and there can be no assurance that any investment strategy will be successful.
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