Both traditional and Roth IRAs feature tax-sheltered growth of earnings. And both typically offer 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 may be appropriate for your needs.
Practically anyone can open and contribute to a traditional IRA. The only requirement is that you must have taxable compensation. 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 you earned.
Your contributions to a traditional IRA may be tax deductible on your federal income tax return. This is important because tax-deductible (pre-tax) 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 IRA 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. You may qualify for a full deduction, a partial deduction, or no deduction at all.
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 73 (for those who reach age 72 after December 31, 2022). That’s when you have to take your first required minimum distribution (RMD) from the IRA. After that, you must take a distribution by the end of every calendar year until your funds are exhausted or you die. The annual distribution amounts are based on a standard life expectancy table. You can always withdraw more than you’re required to in any year. However, if you withdraw less, you’ll be hit with a 25% penalty on the difference between the required minimum and the amount you actually withdrew. (The penalty may be further reduced to 10% if you self-correct the error by withdrawing the shortfall amount and filing a return within a specific correction window.)
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 is at least $6,500 in 2023, 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 allowable contribution may be less than the maximum possible, or nothing at all.
Qualified distributions will also avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty. This ability to withdraw your funds with no taxes or penalty 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 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.
Making the choice
Assuming you qualify to use both, which type of IRA might be appropriate for your needs? The Roth IRA might be a more effective tool if you don’t qualify for tax-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA or if you want to help reduce 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 possibly in a higher tax bracket than you’ll be in during retirement.
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 exceed the annual contribution limit.
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