Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

Overview

What you need to know about IRAs.

Individual Retirement Accounts were established by the federal government, and given special tax treatment, primarily to encourage people to save for retirement. With an IRA, you can set aside a certain amount of money every year in a special account managed by a bank or other financial institution, or by a mutual fund, life insurance company, or stockbroker. IRA accounts can be invested according to your choice of investment options. Your money grows tax-deferred and in some cases even tax-free. While this article explains some of the different types of IRAs, you should consult with your own tax or financial adviser to see if a particular type of IRA is right for you.

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Traditional IRAs

A traditional IRA is a personal savings account that gives you tax advantages for saving for retirement. Contributions to a traditional IRA may be tax-deductible, either in whole or in part, depending on your modified adjusted gross income -- a figure used by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that's arrived at by first deducting some "adjustments" from your total income, and then adding certain items back.

Here is some basic information about traditional IRAs:

  • You can contribute to a traditional IRA for each year that you receive compensation and have not reached age 70?. For any year in which you do not work, contributions cannot be made to your IRA unless you receive alimony or file a joint return with a spouse who has compensation.
  • There is a limit to how much you can contribute each year. For tax years 2005 through 2007, you can make contributions to a traditional IRA of up to whichever amount is smaller: (a) your taxable compensation for the year; or (b) $4,000. In 2008 the $4,000 limit is raised to $5,000. In addition, if you are 50 or over at the end of a tax year, you may contribute an extra "catch-up" amount -- an additional $500 for 2005 (adding up to a total permissible contribution of $4,500) and $1,000 in 2006 and beyond.
  • You are not required to make a contribution to only one type of IRA during the year. If you qualify, you can divide your permissible contributions between a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA.
  • There is no upper limit on how much you can earn and still contribute to a traditional IRA. But there are some rules that limit how much you can deduct. Information regarding employer retirement plans and other rules for IRAs can be found in IRS Publication 590, Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs), at http://www.irs.gov/publications/p590/ar01.html.
  • The investment earnings in your IRA account won't be taxed until you withdraw them. In most cases, IRA account holders withdraw their money upon or after retirement, when they are in a lower tax bracket than at the time the money was invested.
  • You can withdraw or use your traditional IRA assets at any time, but those withdrawals will be treated as income for tax purposes. Moreover, you may be subject to an additional 10 percent penalty tax if you make withdrawals prior to age 59?, unless there are special circumstances, such as death or disability, certain higher Education expenses, or a qualifying first-time home purchase.
  • With a traditional IRA, you must start withdrawing money from your IRA by April 1 of the year following the year in which you reach age 70?, and each year you must withdraw a required minimum distribution, or face a penalty. The IRS provides formulas for figuring out this required amount, based on varying circumstances.
  • One of the benefits of IRAs is that it is easy to move retirement savings from one account to another without any tax penalties. IRA funds can be moved in the following ways:
  • Rollovers. With a rollover, you receive assets from your IRA (or other qualified retirement plan) and then deposit those assets in another IRA (or other qualified retirement plan). If you receive a lump sum payout from a company pension plan, perhaps because you are leaving that company, you can avoid paying taxes on the lump sum by "rolling it over" into an IRA -- but you must do so within 60 days of receiving the funds unless you receive a waiver. A qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan may, at your request, make a "direct rollover" by distributing your plan assets directly into another plan in which you participate or another IRA you've set up. You may make only one rollover from any single traditional IRA to another traditional IRA in any 12-month period, but there's no limit on your ability to roll over amounts from or to other traditional IRAs in any given time period.
  • Conversions. You can move ("convert") amounts from a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, depending on your tax filing status and modified adjusted gross income for the year. This is discussed further under "Roth IRAs," below.
  • Transfer from one custodian to another. You can transfer your IRA to another institution, perhaps to take advantage of a better deal or a promising mutual fund. To switch institutions, simply request a direct IRA-to-IRA transfer from one institution to the other. A transfer is not the same as a rollover. With a rollover, you take receipt of your funds before depositing them in another account. With a transfer, you never receive money; instead, the money goes directly from one IRA account into another. So the 60-day period doesn't apply. Also, because this is not a rollover, it's not subject to the 12-month waiting period required between rollovers.
  • Transfers related to a divorce. An interest in a traditional IRA may be transferred as part of a divorce settlement. This type of transfer is generally tax-free.

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Roth IRAs

A Roth IRA operates differently from a traditional IRA. Key differences include:

  • Contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax-deductible.
  • The distributions (including earnings on your contributions) are not included in income and are potentially tax free. Because your contributions to a Roth IRA are not deductible and have already been taxed as income, you can withdraw your contributions, tax-free, at any time within certain limits -- just as you can withdraw money from your bank account without paying tax on it. The earnings on your contributions, however, are treated a little differently. Withdrawals of earnings from a Roth IRA can generally be made anytime, free of tax or penalty, if it has been five taxable years since you first opened the Roth IRA and if the withdrawals are made: after age 59?; on account of death or disability; or for a qualified first-time home purchase up to $10,000 (lifetime maximum). If a withdrawal does not meet these requirements, it may be taxable, and may also be subject to a 10 percent penalty if made before age 59?.
  • Withdrawals are not required. Unlike the traditional IRA, you may leave assets in a Roth IRA for as long as you live. You may allow your assets to continue to accumulate tax-free and/or be passed to heirs tax-free.
  • Contributions can be made to a Roth IRA as long as you are earning income, even after you reach age 70?.

Here is more information about Roth IRAs:

  • A Roth IRA is generally available only if your adjusted gross income is less than $160,000 for joint filers or $110,000 for single filers. Check with your financial or tax adviser to see if you are eligible.
  • In general, if you contribute only to a Roth IRA, your contribution limits are the same as for a traditional IRA. This includes "catch-up" contributions for those 50 or older. However, if your modified adjusted gross income is above a certain amount, your contribution limit is gradually reduced. The amount you can contribute each year to a Roth IRA may also be limited if you contribute to both a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA.
  • A traditional IRA or other retirement account can, under most circumstances, be converted, partially or entirely, to a Roth IRA, if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $100,000 in the year of conversion. If you are married, you may convert to a Roth IRA only if you file taxes jointly. The converted amount (excluding nondeductible contributions) is subject to income tax in the year of the Roth IRA conversion. You can also roll over a Roth IRA into another Roth IRA.

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Choosing between a traditional and a Roth IRA

If you are eligible for both traditional and Roth IRAs, how do you choose between the two options? Or how do you decide how to apportion your retirement savings between the two? Here are some questions to consider:

  • How long do you expect to keep earning money? If you'll be working beyond age 70?, you will have to begin withdrawing from a traditional IRA and paying tax on those withdrawals, while still paying income tax on your compensation.
  • What tax bracket do you expect to be in when you start withdrawing money? If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket than you are now, then a traditional IRA enables you to save money up front by deducting your contributions and put off paying some taxes until later.
  • Do you plan to use up your IRA assets during your lifetime, or leave them to your heirs? A Roth IRA can be used for estate planning, to build up assets for those who will inherit. While a traditional IRA can be inherited, your heirs and beneficiaries would probably gain more from a Roth IRA. Without mandatory withdrawals, your account can keep accumulating income, tax-free, until your death, when it will pass to the person you've designated.

IRA contributions may normally be invested in mutual funds, annuities, CDs, stocks, or bonds. Which investment selection is most appropriate for you depends on your personal objectives and the amount of risk you wish to take. But one certainty applies to all types of investments: The sooner you invest, the larger your IRA will grow and the sooner you'll be on your way to a comfortable retirement. Talk with your tax or financial adviser about choosing the plan that's right for you.

Written with the help of licensed psychologist Jonathan Hefner, M.A. Mr. Hefner specializes in financial and legal counseling and is the Manager of Legal and Financial Services at Ceridian Corporation.

© 2005 Ceridian Corporation. All rights reserved.

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