Many investors haven't had access to one of the best ways to save for retirement. In a couple of years, however, everyone will have a chance to give the IRS a century-long vacation from collecting tax on their investments.

Roth IRAs give retirement savers the opportunity to invest money in nearly anything they want without having to pay taxes. Currently, however, those whose adjusted gross income is more than the applicable income limits -- $116,000 for singles and $169,000 for married couples in 2008 -- aren't allowed to contribute to Roth IRAs. An even lower limit -- $100,000 for everyone -- applies to prevent many people from converting traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs.

In 2010, the limit on Roth conversions is slated to go away. Although income limits will still apply to regular contributions, being able to convert money in old 401(k) accounts and traditional IRAs is worth a lot more than depositing a few thousand dollars every year.

Why pay tax now?
With a few exceptions, the smartest move is to put off paying income tax as long as possible. But if you decide to do a Roth conversion, you'll have to pay tax on the money you convert. So what's the big deal? Why pay more tax than you have to?

Even with the higher tax bill, there are some big advantages to doing a Roth IRA conversion:

  • Many are concerned that income-tax rates will go up sooner or later. If the current low rates still apply in 2010, then converting lets you lock in those low rates and avoids higher taxes later.
  • If you convert during 2010, you can spread your tax liability out across the 2011 and 2012 tax years. In subsequent years, you have to pay tax the same year.
  • Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs don't force you to take money out if you don't need it. That opens the door to a very effective estate-planning technique, where you can pass on your Roth IRA to your heirs, who can then enjoy tax-free distributions throughout their lives.

It's that last point that's the most powerful. Think about it: You enjoy tax-free growth for the rest of your lifetime. Then, if you leave your Roth IRA to your kids or grandkids, they won't pay income tax, either -- they just have to take withdrawals based on their life expectancy. Depending on how old you and your kids or grandkids are, that can easily add up to 100 years or more of dividends and capital gains -- all tax-free.

To get just a glimpse of how much you can save in taxes, go back 40 years and look at how some well-known stocks have performed since 1968:


$10,000 Invested in 1968 Is Now Worth:

Potential Tax Avoided




General Motors (NYSE:GM)



Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ)



Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT)



Boeing (NYSE:BA)



Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO)



Alcoa (NYSE:AA)



Source: Yahoo! Finance. Tax avoided is based on current maximum 35% rate that applies to traditional IRA and 401(k) distributions.

Then imagine what another 40 or 60 years would do to those values. With the huge tax savings that Roth conversions make possible, it's no wonder that high-income taxpayers are already planning for 2010.

Not a sure thing
But they're also keeping their fingers crossed. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that conversions will still be available by the time 2010 rolls around. What happens in the 2008 elections could have a big impact, and even if the next administration doesn't kill the provision, a general increase in income-tax rates could make conversions less attractive.

In addition, Congress could change the tax laws to make Roth IRAs less attractive. It could create new taxes on Roth accounts. Alternatively, if the U.S. moved to a consumption-tax model, it would effectively eliminate the main benefit of Roth IRAs. Either of those scenarios would be disastrous if you converted, because you'd end up unnecessarily paying taxes twice.

For many, though, the potential rewards are enough to warrant taking some risk. With the possibility of much higher tax rates in the future, taking action to lock in lower rates could save you and your family millions over the next several generations.

For more on the Roth IRA: