Somewhat obscure question about Roth conversion strategy
06-16-2021, 12:41 PM   #1
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Somewhat obscure question about Roth conversion strategy

Hi all.

52M, single, FIREd for 5 years. Doing the typical Roth conversions between now and age 72 when I plan to start RMDs. I plan to take SS at 70.

For the purposes of this post, please set aside any discussions of tax rates sunsetting in 2026, inflation, mortality concerns, surviving spouse issues, IRMAA, and the like. Please assume a huge ceteris paribus on everything except the issue below.

I understand the general idea of doing Roth conversions up to the point where my marginal rate today is around what it will be when I'm 72.

I also understand that there is a seesaw effect - the more I convert today, the higher my marginal rate today and the lower it will be when I'm 72, and vice versa.

I'm fairly certain I can assess my marginal rate today at age 52. I also have a spreadsheet that helps me assess my marginal rate when I'm 72.

That spreadsheet obviously has slots for what I Roth convert this year and every year through and past age 72 (up to 85, I think).

So my question:

When I am doing the marginal rate analysis on Roth conversions for the current year N, what should I assume or enter for Roth conversions for the year N+1 through 71?

A. I currently enter what I expect to be my plan for those years, which is roughly up to a FAFSA limit for the next two years, then 400% FPL through Medicare age, then 22% tax bracket for several years, then some IRMAA bracket cliffs, then the 24% tax bracket then the 32% bracket. In other words, I progressively max out monotonically increasing brackets over time. (*)

B. But I could enter \$0 for those years.

C. I could also enter whatever Roth conversion number I'm planning on for current year N and just copy paste that number down that column in my spreadsheet.

Option A seems most reasonable because it's the most likely outcome. But it means that my current year Roth conversion doesn't really impact the age 72 marginal rate much, because my age 52 Roth conversion this year is only 1/20th or so of the total conversions before age 72. The current year conversion impact gets diluted by those other 20 conversions.

Option B seems silly.

Option C seems reasonable too, and would magnify the effect of changes in my Roth conversion amount, because changing my age 52 Roth conversion would also change the other 20 conversion numbers as well.

Anyone else thought of this, and how to address it?

(*) I do this because the parameter I've chosen to maximize is the after tax cash flows with a discount rate of 3%, meaning that I value a spendable dollar when I'm 52 3% more than that same dollar at age 53. If I built my spreadsheet correctly, the way to optimize this seems to be as described above - generally maxxing out brackets until the underlying growth of the traditional IRA shoves me into the next bracket up, and then repeating the process. This is definitely different from just leveling my marginal rate over time. I've attached a screenshot showing my plan where the blue line is my planned withdrawals, marginal rates are the other curves on the left, and IRMAA brackets are the other curves on the right.
Attached Images
 rmd.jpg (288.4 KB, 96 views)
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 06-16-2021, 12:47 PM #2 Confused about dryer sheets   Join Date: May 2021 Posts: 1 What I would do is run the extended I-ORP (https://www.i-orp.com/Plans/extended.html). It's designed to limit the amount of taxes in retirement. There's also an input for which tax brackets to fill up with Roth conversions. It can be run several times looking at the effect of filling up the different current tax brackets.
 06-16-2021, 01:21 PM #3 Give me a museum and I'll fill it. (Picasso)Give me a forum ...   Join Date: Nov 2010 Location: Sarasota, FL & Vermont Posts: 29,719 I think A makes the most sense in that it is your "plan". However, have you also included growth of tIRA balances from investment results? I presume that you have. I guess I look at it a bit more simply.... and perhaps our situation is simpler than yours so I have an easier way out. If I do nothing, I pay negligible taxes from now until RMDs begin... even after starting SS at 70... but RMDs starting at age 72 put me solidly in the 22% tax bracket with the incremental tax being ~20% of my RMD (a blend of some 12% and more 22%). So any conversions that I can do today at less than that 20% effective rate is a win. However, the ultimate effective rates on RMDs does drift down some as I do Roth conversions today because they lower future RMDs. I've looked at it 20 ways from Sunday over the years and am leaning towards setting my Roth conversions to try to make my penetration into the 22% tax bracket constant rather than 0% now and substantial if I do no Roth conversions. No right answer that I've ever been able to find. __________________ If something cannot endure laughter.... it cannot endure. Patience is the art of concealing your impatience. Slow and steady wins the race. Retired Jan 2012 at age 56
 06-16-2021, 01:50 PM #4 Give me a museum and I'll fill it. (Picasso)Give me a forum ...   Join Date: Jun 2007 Posts: 11,147 I would do A, but I haven't looked too closely at this because I think I can get my tIRA totally converted by the time I take SS at 70. So I just compare my rate now with conversion to my rate at 70/72 with SS and small pension and no RMD.
 06-16-2021, 01:58 PM #5 Thinks s/he gets paid by the post   Join Date: Dec 2014 Location: St. Charles Posts: 2,871 Given your limitations due to FASFA and ACA limits, I think your plan A makes the most sense. And with a 20 year horizon you have plenty of time to adjust if/when things change. But also, given you are single, I am guessing the amount you can convert is fairly limited. I am married and at the tail end of your plan, with only 6 more years of conversions remaining. So I look at it much like PB4USKI. I started 5 years ago by staying in the 12% bracket. My limitation last year and going forward is the IRMMA cliff, so now I am in the 22% bracket (but my effective tax rate on the conversion last year was 15.6%). __________________ If your not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space. Never slow down, never grow old!
 06-16-2021, 03:53 PM #6 Recycles dryer sheets   Join Date: Oct 2020 Posts: 263 This doesn't sound like the optimum plan. Generally speaking, since the tax code is convex ("progressive"), you want to even out the tax rates, so that you pay the same average rate on conversions each year. Various subsidies like FAFSA or ACA may be big enough to skew that logic, but even those aren't big enough to dominate if you have enough money in tax deferred. If you are really in 32% bracket late in life, you probably should have tried harder to fill the 22% and 24% brackets earlier.
06-16-2021, 06:42 PM   #8
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 ....I think I asked you this before, but why do you look at effective rates instead of marginal rates? For example, in 2020 my effective rate was only a couple of basis points but my marginal rate was over 50%. The two can be wildly different, and I was trained and had myself convinced that on the margin, one should compare marginal rates now vs. later. ...
I'm probably a little loose with my wording there... I look at the effective rate with respect to the Roth conversion.... the incremental tax on the Roth conversion divided by the Roth conversion amount.

So if with no Roth conversions I would pay \$1,000 in tax but with \$75,000 of Roth conversions I would pay \$10,000 in tax then the effective rate on the conversion is (\$10,000-\$1,000)/\$75,000 or 12%.

Not my overall effective rate of total tax divided by total income.
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 06-16-2021, 06:52 PM #9 Moderator   Join Date: Oct 2010 Posts: 8,354 Interesting concept, that of the moving target at age 72+. But I guess I knew it was a see-saw thing...the more you convert now, the lower your RMD so the lower age 72+ brackets. I've never tried to model it, though. I ran a lot of i-orp scenarios, and I agree that you can't model everything with that tool. The tax calculation is opaque, but if you accept that column and you accept the single annual spend, you can recreate the entire plan (I've done that), so less of a black box than many calculators. But I'm finding retirement financial modeling less and less interesting the more I do it; different scenarios just aren't that different, from a dollar magnitude standpoint. But I don't want to take away from the analysis you're doing, I think it's good information to ascertain.
 06-16-2021, 07:14 PM #10 Give me a museum and I'll fill it. (Picasso)Give me a forum ...   Join Date: Jun 2006 Location: Boise Posts: 5,590 ^ Sure, I understand that. But I'm sure you can imagine a scenario where the top half of a conversion (say the top \$37.5K of that \$75K conversion) is taxed at a higher rate even if the effective rate on the conversion is 12%. And that higher rate could be higher than the rate would be on that same \$37.5K conversion if you postponed that top half to age 72 or whenever. Which would mean to me that it would be smarter to only do the lower half \$37.5K and defer the top half \$37.5K to age 72 or whenever. Right? This is probably hard to imagine in the 12%/22%/24% space, but could be easier to imagine at the 24%/32% breakpoint. ... As an aside, I think I've convinced myself that the answer to my original question is A. The fact that the effect of the conversion this year gets diluted is just what will actually happen if I follow my plan, so it's probably realistic. ... I did calculate the average effective rate in my spreadsheet by totaling my taxable income for all years, my income tax on that income for all years, and my IRMAA charges on that income for all years. Taking the first and dividing it into the sum of the second and third (so "fed income + IRMAA / taxable income") I get 29.59%. (Blech.) This isn't quite what pb4uski refers to above, because I'm including SS benefits and my standard deduction in the effective rate calculations. __________________ "At times the world can seem an unfriendly and sinister place, but believe us when we say there is much more good in it than bad. All you have to do is look hard enough, and what might seem to be a series of unfortunate events, may in fact be the first steps of a journey." Violet Baudelaire.
06-16-2021, 07:21 PM   #11
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 @RB, how do you calculate your age 70/72 rate now? It seems one has to assume both growth of the investment and any intervening Roth conversions between now and then. What do you assume about your Roth conversions between now and then when doing your calculation? That's my real question.
My IRA isn't that large and it's all invested in bonds and TIPS, so it won't grow that much. I figure any growth is probably matched by a raise in tax brackets. So I figure I can convert about the same each year until 65 and a little less once I start my pension, and that will get me pretty close to \$0. If at 65 (end of ACA subsidies) I see I'm not going to get it down that much, I can convert more or deal with the taxes later. I don't need to set future year plans in stone. At 70 I'll probably stop because of SS.

At 72, I made the same assumptions that any increases are matched by tax bracket increases and used today's numbers. It happens that I'd be in the SS tax hump so the first few thousand of an RMD would be taxed at 49.95%, which is why I want no IRA balance then. Realistically, the dividends thrown by my investments will probably increase enough to take me over the SS tax hump, but I'd still be in the 12% bracket (maybe 15% later) with 15% tax on QDivs. So I figure a minimum of 27% tax on any RMDs later. If I pushed all QDivs into being taxed it falls back to 22%.

My conclusion is that any 12% or less conversions I do now is better than paying a higher rate later, with the added benefit of tax free growth in the Roth. For now I'm avoiding any tax of QDivs so that my current marginal tax isn't 12+15%. But if I saw I was to miss converting all by a lot I would probably convert through that 27% rate, back to 22% and even to the top of 24% for one year, which should handle it. If I'm only a little off, I'm happy to do QCDs. I don't plan to leave too much to QCDs because I already have a funded DAF.

If you follow all that, I'm impressed. I think every situation has differences to account for, so it's difficult to grasp someone else's situation from a few paragraphs of a post. My strategy is to convert the obvious amount. Beyond that, when in doubt, convert more. I'd rather pay the known tax now than leave it to the uncertainties of the future. Some people would rather defer the income longer, but I just see that as kicking an increasing tax liability down the road. I have to caution myself not to get too aggressive in wiping out that tax liability.

06-16-2021, 07:53 PM   #12
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 But I'm sure you can imagine a scenario where the top half of a conversion (say the top \$37.5K of that \$75K conversion) is taxed at a higher rate even if the effective rate on the conversion is 12%. And that higher rate could be higher than the rate would be on that same \$37.5K conversion if you postponed that top half to age 72 or whenever. Which would mean to me that it would be smarter to only do the lower half \$37.5K and defer the top half \$37.5K to age 72 or whenever. Right?
Yes. That is straightforward enough if your marginal rate always stays the same or increases as your conversion amount increases.

When that is not the case, e.g., Worth pushing through the Social Security hump and/or IRMAA cliffs?, it gets trickier (because reality is not "monotonically increasing") but remains doable.

Quote:
 As an aside, I think I've convinced myself that the answer to my original question is A. The fact that the effect of the conversion this year gets diluted is just what will actually happen if I follow my plan, so it's probably realistic.
How much of a difference do you see in your answer for this year's conversion among options A/B/C?

 06-16-2021, 08:03 PM #13 Recycles dryer sheets   Join Date: Oct 2020 Posts: 263 OK, we answered questions based on Roth conversions the way other people do them as they are concerned about optimizing their life time saving or cash flow or leaving a large legacy. For that situation, you simply optimize the first year first and move to the next, there is little iteration needed as the first year has more impact than the second, which has more impact than the third, etc. Here you have created a completely different metric of devaluing future cash flows by 3%/yr. So instead of changes today have a larger and larger effect over time, where the solution can essentially be sequential, today's actions have less and less effect over time and future years have a more important role. You have also made the problem even more eclectic by searching for ways for others to subsidize you and I'm sure the math of qualifying for those subsidies is quite complicated. So you are going to have to iterate, maybe a lot.
06-16-2021, 09:09 PM   #15
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by Exchme This doesn't sound like the optimum plan. Generally speaking, since the tax code is convex ("progressive"), you want to even out the tax rates, so that you pay the same average rate on conversions each year. Various subsidies like FAFSA or ACA may be big enough to skew that logic, but even those aren't big enough to dominate if you have enough money in tax deferred. If you are really in 32% bracket late in life, you probably should have tried harder to fill the 22% and 24% brackets earlier.
On the ACA subsidy, do the math on the impact of a \$24,000 benefit reduction of out of pocket expense today (family of 4 where I live) vs. foregoing that and converting more (plus the immediate income tax impact) and the FV of paying more down the road. You seem to know how to do that, so let us know the numbers.

I'm not in the FAFSA world, but if the benefit is similar, the combo of the two kinda really, really complicates the simplistic "convex" approach you describe.

Would be helpful for you to model a few different scenarios of ACA subsidy and FAFSA benefits for us (family of 3, all in college, (pick your location), compare them to the approach you describe, and report back.
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06-17-2021, 12:10 AM   #16
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 ...it turns out that they're not all that different - A is about 28.94%, B is 35%+IRMAA (the spreadsheet blows up), and C is about 38.37%. So that's helpful.
What are those percentages of?

06-17-2021, 01:03 AM   #17
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SevenUp What are those percentages of?
Oh, sorry. Those are my projected marginal tax rates at age 75 (federal income tax bracket plus IRMAA effective tax rate).

Since I've already decided to go with plan A and my tax brackets are monotonic (or very nearly so), I think I can just Roth convert up to wherever my marginal federal rate gets up to (or exceeds) 28.94%.
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06-17-2021, 05:16 AM   #18
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 ^ Sure, I understand that. But I'm sure you can imagine a scenario where the top half of a conversion (say the top \$37.5K of that \$75K conversion) is taxed at a higher rate even if the effective rate on the conversion is 12%. And that higher rate could be higher than the rate would be on that same \$37.5K conversion if you postponed that top half to age 72 or whenever. Which would mean to me that it would be smarter to only do the lower half \$37.5K and defer the top half \$37.5K to age 72 or whenever. Right? This is probably hard to imagine in the 12%/22%/24% space, but could be easier to imagine at the 24%/32% breakpoint. ... As an aside, I think I've convinced myself that the answer to my original question is A. The fact that the effect of the conversion this year gets diluted is just what will actually happen if I follow my plan, so it's probably realistic. ... I did calculate the average effective rate in my spreadsheet by totaling my taxable income for all years, my income tax on that income for all years, and my IRMAA charges on that income for all years. Taking the first and dividing it into the sum of the second and third (so "fed income + IRMAA / taxable income") I get 29.59%. (Blech.) This isn't quite what pb4uski refers to above, because I'm including SS benefits and my standard deduction in the effective rate calculations.
Yes I understand all of that. Since I no longer have any equities in taxable accounts the only relevant marginal rates for me are 12% and 22% so it makes it a lot easier. While SS hasn't been a factor for us until just now, I assume SS is 85% no matter what and we'll get the standard deduction whether we do Roth conversions or not so I don't consider that as a factor in looking at effective rate calculations. If we were subject to IRMMA then I would include those but I would limit Roth conversions to the IRMMA limit.
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06-17-2021, 06:35 AM   #19
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Quote:
 Originally Posted by SecondCor521 Hi all. A. I currently enter what I expect to be my plan for those years, which is roughly up to a FAFSA limit for the next two years,
If I may ask a perhaps equally obscure question regarding the above... If you are FIREd I'm assuming you have a fairly large nest egg. Doesn't that nest egg prohibit you from qualifying for any FAFSA grants? I'm not even looking into FAFSA for this reason even though I could make my income very low if need be, but am planning on doing larger Roth conversions instead.

 06-17-2021, 07:23 AM #20 Moderator   Join Date: Oct 2010 Posts: 8,354 Retirement assets are not included in the expected family contribution calculation. I was told that they'd adjust out the Roth conversion I did. I asked the financial aid office before the I did the conversion. But in the end, no matter what I said, they used the higher income, including the Roth conversion amount. So they mislead me. The FAO is not your friend. Treating scholarships (which all other businesses call "discounts") as locked-in rules is not quite on solid footing either. The FAO can do whatever they want with respect to the package they offer. The sweetest one will be the first year, and after that, they'll probably weasel away a bit each year. At least that's what happened to me. Many schools run two methodologies and build the package based on the one most advantageous to them. But it was totally worth playing that game for me... discounts were huge at a big-name private school. But don't dismiss the possibility of need based discounts, especially if you will have two kids in college at the same time.

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