Roth Conversion Early in the Year

By Kaye A. Thomas
Current as of February 7, 2018

There’s an advantage in doing a Roth conversion early in the year, but also a possible disadvantage in waiting until after the end of the year.

You can do a Roth conversion whenever you want, but there are advantages to doing a Roth conversion early in the year.

  • This page is adapted from Chapter 24, Conversion Strategy Fundamentals, of our book, Go Roth!

Paying the tax

The advantage of doing a Roth conversion early in the year has to do with the due date for paying tax on the conversion income. If you convert in January you won’t have to pay that tax until about fifteen months later. Your Roth can be generating tax-free earnings more than a year before you have to come up with the conversion tax. You’ll pay tax on a December conversion only about four months after the transaction. The difference won’t be quite this great if you have to make estimated payments covering tax on the conversion income, but even then some of the advantage of an earlier conversion usually remains.

This advantage applies whether you’re converting to a Roth IRA or doing an in-plan conversion of a traditional 401k or similar account to a Roth account within the plan.

Five-year waiting period

If you’re thinking about a conversion late in the year, there’s a possible advantage in moving forward, rather than waiting until next year. Acting now can start the clock on satisfying the five-year period for qualifying distributions, or the five-year period for avoiding a 10% early distribution penalty, a year earlier. That’s because these five-year periods are measured from January 1 of the year the relevant event occurs. These considerations aren’t always relevant, however, and you can start the clock running for qualified distributions with a small conversion before year-end and then convert the rest early in the following year.

Undoing a conversion

We used to say an early-year conversion had another advantage, because it gave you more time to wait before deciding whether to undo the conversion. This consideration is no longer relevant because the 2017 tax law prevents taxpayers from undoing post-2017 conversions.


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