IRAs, Roth IRAs and the Conversion Decision for Americans Living Abroad (2017)

IRAs, Roth IRAs and the Conversion Decision for Americans Living Abroad 2017

David Kuenzi, CFP®, Thun Financial Advisors, Updated, Copyright © 2017


Introduction Expat IRAs and Roth IRAs

Even under the most conventional of circumstances, American taxpayers struggle to fully understand the myriad of tax advantaged retirement investment options they have.  IRAs, 401(k)s, Roths, Individual 401(k)s, 403(b)s, deferred compensation plans, and defined benefit employer pension plans are some of the many possible investment choices from which American taxpayers might choose. Each has slightly different tax implications and a separate set of complex compliance rules, contribution limits, mandatory withdrawal requirements and other features.   For Americans abroad, matters are further complicated by a broad range of special tax considerations, both U.S. and country-of-residence, that factor into the equation.  The good news is that Americans abroad generally have the same opportunities as do Americans at home to accrue tax benefits from tax advantaged retirement accounts.  In fact, under certain circumstances and with proper planning, U.S. expats may be able to manage their foreign residency to gain special advantage.

In this note, we guide U.S. expats to compliant and efficient use of IRAs and Roth IRAs.  It also addresses the potential advantage of Roth conversion and broader oversea U.S. citizen tax strategies to use.

For the sake of simplification, this discussion assumes all traditional IRA contributions are pre-tax contributions only.   The effect of U.S. state and local tax rate are not factored, except where explicitly discussed.

Understanding the Difference between a “Traditional” IRA and a “Roth” IRA

Many investors will be familiar with the concept of the IRA (Individual Retirement Account), commonly referred to as a “traditional IRA.”  These accounts allow taxpayers to contribute up to $5,500 of their earned income to an IRA account each year ($6,500 if over age 50) and receive a corresponding tax deduction (similar tax-deferred employer sponsored retirement plans such as 401(k)s have higher contribution limits).    Therefore, a taxpayer in the 25% marginal tax bracket will get the immediate benefit of saving $1,375 on their current year tax bill ($5,500 x .25) if he makes a maximum contribution to a traditional IRA.  Investments in an IRA account grow tax-deferred until retirement.  At age 59 ½ distributions can begin.  Distributions are, in most cases 100% taxable at the owner’s marginal tax rate.  Furthermore, starting at age 70 ½, minimum annual distributions based on the account owners life expectancy become mandatory.

In addition to annual contributions, traditional IRA accounts may also be funded by the rollover of an employer plan (401(k), profit sharing plan, 403(b), etc.) into a traditional IRA. Where the investor has assets in such a plan but is no longer participating, rolling the assets into a traditional IRA is free of tax. This is typically referred to as a 401k rollover. American expats are eligible for 401k rollovers just as any other eligible person is.

Restrictions apply that may prevent contributions from being made.  Contributions amounts cannot exceed the actual amount of earned income (see below).   Individuals covered by a qualified company retirement plan may be partially or completely prevented from contributing pre-tax dollars to an IRA (see Appendix A).

Special Expat IRA Considerations: American citizens not resident in the U.S. may contribute to an IRA.  However, they must have earned income that is not excluded by the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE) and the Foreign Housing Exclusion (FHE).  For example, an American citizen employed abroad by a foreign corporation earning $85,000 a year who is able to exclude all of her U.S. income from taxation under the FEIE will have no “non-excluded” income from which to make an IRA contribution, and therefore cannot contribute.  A higher income expat with $200,000 of earned income who applies a combination of the FEIE and FHE with the Foreign Tax Credit to reduce their U.S. tax liability will be able to make a contribution.

Of course, if the combination of FEIE, the FHE and the Foreign Tax Credit has eliminated all U.S. tax liability, a traditional IRA contribution will provide no immediate tax benefit, but would be taxed when withdrawn in retirement and therefore is not advised. Thus we conclude that generally IRA contributions, if allowed, may make sense in countries of residence with low tax rates but not in those with high tax rates.

Even if a Traditional IRA is not permitted or does not make financial sense, a Roth contribution might make sense for an expat.

The “Roth IRA” Variant

The Roth IRA works in a reverse manner to the traditional IRA.  Contributions to a Roth IRA generate no immediate tax savings.  However, when distributions of both principal and investment earnings are taken in retirement, they are completely free of tax.  Contribution limits for Roth IRAs are the same as for regular IRAs.   Unlike traditional IRAs, single filers with modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) above $132,000 and married, joint filers with (MAGI) above $194,000, cannot make annual Roth contributions.

There is an option to convert an existing traditional IRA (as well as other tax-deferred retirement plans) to a Roth IRA.  All or part of the traditional IRA can be converted.  Conversion is available for all traditional IRA accounts without respect to income.  Conversion, however, requires the account holder to report the full value of the amount converted as regular income in the year converted.

An important advantage of the Roth IRA is that it has no minimum distribution requirement.  The entire balance of the account can simply be left to grow free of tax and then bequeathed to estate beneficiaries.  Those beneficiaries, in turn, can stretch withdrawals out over their entire lifetimes.  That realistically implies that Roth contributions made now by younger individuals could remain in the account, growing tax free for 100 years or more before being fully withdrawn.    The compounding effect of such long-term tax free appreciation implies a very, very large boost to inter-generational wealth accumulation.   Of course, leaving the Roth IRA untapped through retirement implies that the account owner has other financial resources on which to draw.

Special Expat Roth IRA Considerations:  Many American expats who have married non-Americans elect to file married, filing separately.  Taxpayers with this filing status are generally not allowed to make any IRA contributions.  Roth conversions are still permitted.

To Convert or Not Convert an IRA?

As previously noted, conversion of a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA requires the account holder to report all of the amount converted as regular income in the year of the conversion.  That may result in a very large tax bill due at the time of conversion for individuals depending on the size of the amount converted.  So it is important to carefully analyze the tax consequences of Roth conversion.

The choice between Roth or traditional is a choice between taxation at current tax rates or at future tax rates (in retirement). Generally, it is better to defer taxes (and collect investment return on the amount of taxes deferred) than to pay now.  This is especially true when future tax rates will be lower than current tax rates.  However, the Roth also allows all future appreciation to be totally tax free.  The value of tax free growth may more than offset the negative impact of paying now at higher rates.

Therefore, the calculation of whether or not it makes financial sense to contribute to a Roth IRA or convert a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA largely depends on two variables:  1) The marginal tax rate at which taxes will have to be paid on amounts converted or contributed now, 2) the marginal tax rate prevailing at the time money is withdrawn from the traditional IRA, if conversion is not carried out.  Analysis shows that when retirement tax rates are expected to be the same or higher than current rates, the Roth contributions and Roth conversion is unambiguously the right choice.  Only when marginal tax rates in retirement are expected to be substantially lower than current marginal tax rates does the traditional IRA prove optimal.

Judging Current and Future Tax Rates

Determining current and future tax rates is a complex exercise.  First, future tax rates are uncertain.  Second, good financial planning can help reduce tax rates now and in the future which in turn will alter the pay-off of employing Roth.  Within this context, the value of Roth conversion will be determined by:

  • Proper calculation of the current marginal tax rate. Marginal tax rate refers to the rate at which your last dollar of taxable income is taxed. This can range from 10% for individuals with less than $9,275 of taxable income in 2016 to 39.6% for individuals with more than $415,051. Taxpayers considering a Roth conversion must be aware that conversion may raise the marginal tax rate at which at least some of the converted amount is taxed. For example, an individual with taxable income of $110,000 in 2016 falls into the 28% marginal tax bracket.  If he has a $100,000 traditional IRA to convert and converts all of it in 2016, the effect of the additional income will be to push him into the 33% marginal tax bracket, causing part of the converted amount to be taxed at the 33% rate and part at the 28% rate.  In such cases, it may be optimal to spread the conversion out over several years so that the conversion itself does not push the taxpayer into a higher tax bracket.  Careful analysis of an investor’s tax situation is required.
  • A changing year-to-year financial and tax situation. Individuals who experience large swings in their annual income may be most able to benefit from Roth.  For example, consider a taxpayer with $100,000 in a traditional IRA account, who experienced a temporary period of unemployment during 2016 and as a result has little or no income for the year.  The taxpayer finds new, high-paying work in 2017 and in general is likely to be well-off in retirement.  This is an ideal situation for Roth conversion.  Most of the $100,000 in the traditional IRA can be converted at a relatively low tax rate in 2016.  This can result in large tax savings.  In such a scenario, it may be optimal to contribute and/or convert even if the investor ends up in a relatively low marginal rate during retirement.
  • Estimating retirement year tax rates. Deriving a realistic estimate of marginal tax rates twenty to thirty years in the future requires a lot of careful financial planning and some educated guesswork.  Taxpayers must analyze and estimate likely sources of retirement income (social security, pensions, investment income).  Consideration of the national economic and financial environment must also be factored in: most analysts expect tax rates to rise over the medium to long term in the United States, although this is not by any means a foregone conclusion.

Special Expat Roth Conversion Considerations:   Expats have to go through the same process of estimating current versus future marginal tax rates, but deriving accurate rates estimates requires several addition factors:

  • State taxes are an important part of the Roth conversion calculation for Americans abroad. In many cases (but not all) Americans living abroad are not subject to state taxation.  If they intend to return home and retire in a state that taxes traditional IRA distributions (as most states do), then the ability to convert without paying state taxes on the conversion (and thereby permanently removing the assets from both state and federal taxes) effectively lowers the bar in favor of conversion.
  • Host country taxation must also be considered. If the Roth IRA conversion amount is subject to a local taxation at a higher rate that the applicable U.S. rate, it may be better to forego Roth conversion or defer it until returning to the U.S. ( if return is anticipated).  Furthermore, most countries may not recognize Roth IRA distributions as tax-free.  The taxpayer thereby risks being double taxed: once on the amount contributed when it was earned and again when it is distributed in retirement.
  • Americans who anticipate living abroad permanently may want to consider a host of unique planning opportunities to reduce their retirement marginal tax rate.   The availability of such strategies may militate against Roth conversion.  For example, consider the case of an American citizen living in Hong Kong, married to a Hong Kong citizen who is not an American citizen or a U.S. permanent resident.  Suppose the American citizen has large amounts of unrealized capital gains in an investment portfolio and anticipates selling those holdings to fund retirement.  In that case, the American citizen should consider annual gifts of stock to his Hong Kong spouse (in 2016 an American citizen can gift up to $145,000 per year to a non-U.S. citizen spouse without paying gift tax).   The spouse, in turn, can sell the stock and pay no capital gains since Hong Kong does not have a capital gains tax.  Properly employed, such a strategy may reduce the American citizen’s retirement tax rate to a level well below his tax rate at the time the conversion decision had to be made.

The myriad of circumstances and possibilities raised by living abroad are too many, and too specific to each individual case to list completely here.  Suffice to say, the Roth conversion decision requires careful consideration and the required analysis is further complicated by additional financial planning factors unique to Americans abroad.

Tax Diversification between IRA Accounts

For many younger taxpayers or the merely moderately well-off, making a close to definitive conclusion about whether conversion is financially optimal may not be possible.   There can be too many uncertainties about retirement year financial circumstances for an accurate calculation to be made.  This is one of the reasons that taxpayers may want to pursue a strategy of “tax diversification.”   In this scenario, the taxpayer contributes some annual amounts to a Roth and some to a traditional IRA.  Likewise, part of an existing traditional IRA is converted and part is not.   This approach effectively hedges the taxpayer against the risk of being in a much higher or lower marginal tax environment during retirement than they anticipated when they made the decision between traditional and Roth.

Special considerations for expats:   Tax diversification makes especially good sense for Americans abroad because the complexity of the conversion calculation is augmented by their special tax and planning circumstances.  The more complicated the calculation, the higher the risk that the wrong decision will be made and therefore the greater the benefit of a “hedged” approach as offered by the tax diversification strategy.


Although specific analysis of each situation is required, most wealthy Americans will find the Roth contributions and strategically executed Roth conversions make sense.  For taxpayers not expecting to be in the higher tax brackets during retirement, the decision is not clear-cut.

For many moderately financially well-off Americans, Roth may ultimately generate a very large tax savings, but changing personal financial circumstances changes and changes in future tax policies (both in the U.S. and/or in the country of residence)  could cause this not to be the case.  Factors uniquely affecting Americans abroad will have broad impact on the calculation. As always, it is best to consult with a qualified investment advisor or tax consultant before making a final decision.


Appendix A:   Attributes of Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs 

  Traditional IRA Roth IRA
Tax advantage Tax-deferred earnings.Current year tax deduction Tax-free earnings.
Eligibility [1] Investors must have earned income equal to or greater than their contribution.Investors must be under age 70½. Investors must have earned income equal to or greater than their contribution.Investors modified adjusted gross income must fall within the limits prescribed by the IRS.
Maximum contribution allowed by law [2] $ 5,500 for tax year 2016 ($6,500 if age 50 or older).  $5,500 combined with all other IRA’s for tax year 2016 ($6,500 if age 50 or older).The maximum Roth contribution depends on the investor’s income.
Tax deductibility Contributions up to the less of $5,500 ($6,500 if age 50 or older) of 100% of taxable compensation unless the investor (and/or his/her spouse) participates in a qualified employer plan and meets certain income thresholds Contributions are nondeductible.
Taxes on withdrawals Ordinary income tax on earnings and deductible contributions.No federal tax on nondeductible contributions.State tax may apply.Distributions from contributions are federally tax-free. Distributions from earnings are federally tax free if over age 59½ and have owned the Roth IRA for at least five years. If under 59½, distributions are tax-free if the investor owned the Roth IRA for at least five years and the distribution is due to death or disability or for a first-time home purchase (with a $10,000 lifetime maximum for the latter).State tax may apply.
Penalty for early withdrawal 10% federal penalty tax on withdrawals before age 59½ unless an exception applies. Distributions from contributions are penalty-free.10% federal penalty tax on withdrawals of earnings before age 59½ unless an exception applies.

Please visit Thun Research Articles for American Expat Investors to find more related information on investing while living abroad.