• WisBusiness

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Debate over Clean Energy Act rests on how far Wisconsin should go on its own

By Tom Still
Steve Pintar grew up in Milwaukee and earned an engineering degree from the UW-Madison. He also led the design teams for the 2008 Ford Focus and, most recently, the 2011 Ford Fiesta, another "global" vehicle due for release this spring.

One might think the guy who is redefining Ford's tough-truck image through fuel-miser cars with big-car features would applaud state efforts -- such as those proposed in Wisconsin -- to set tougher emissions standards than those required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Not so. While Pintar gives states credit for pushing the envelope on emissions, alternative fuels and other climate-change strategies tied to transportation, he thinks a hodge-podge of state standards can slow innovation among carmakers and make life more complicated for dealers, customers and cross-border economies.

"Obviously, we work to meet all the California requirements and we have a product line right now that does. But my personal opinion is, after having been on the product development side, that when a state has its own regulations, the system is less efficient in total," Pintar said. "For the total (auto) industry, the maximum technology deployment, customer acceptance and industry efficiencies will be best with better regulatory alignment."

Pintar, who toured Wisconsin this month to promote Fiesta's release, is not alone in his belief that states can overreach when they set standards that move beyond federal rules. Business and trade groups in Wisconsin have lined up to oppose the transportation goals from the Governor's Task Force on Global Warming for that very reason.

The task force report, largely embodied in the Clean Energy Jobs Act now being debated in the Wisconsin Legislature, would tie the state's vehicle emissions standards to those adopted by California. The EPA itself has refused to accept California's tougher standards, which critics say have created another layer of state bureaucracy and costs.

The vehicle emissions standards are not the only parts of the bill that could set Wisconsin apart -- in ways supporters insist will better position the state as a haven for "green" economic growth, and which opponents fear will cost thousands of jobs.

The bill seeks to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (largely carbon dioxide) emissions in Wisconsin over time by a combination of strategies. On the electricity generation side, renewable energy sources would need to reach 10 percent by 2013, 20 percent by 2020 and 25 percent by 2025. While some state utilities have hit the 10 percent mark already, most are still well short of that mark, which current law would not require until 2015.

The bill anticipates new federal limits on carbon emissions due to global climate change and seeks to give Wisconsin a "green economy" edge over other states.

"When you see a train coming, you need to get ready," said Roy Thilly, co-chair of the task force and president of WPPI Energy in Sun Prairie. "The scientific consensus (around global climate change) is really quite strong, and it would be imprudent not to act based on that science. In fact, there are serious long-term costs for Wisconsin if we fail to act."

Speaking to a recent meeting of Competitive Wisconsin Inc., Thilly said conservation always comes first but Wisconsin must pursue other strategies to reduce its "carbon footprint" in anticipation of new federal standards. Absent steps now, he argued, Wisconsin won't be able to compete with other states and nations for green jobs.

Opponents claim the bill won't create jobs -- but will instead cost Wisconsin jobs because it puts the state too far ahead of the pack, creates new burdens for business and increases costs for everyone from electricity users to owners of cars and other vehicles.

"I don't think I have ever seen a bill that has a broader reach to all the citizens of this state," said James Buchen, vice president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce. "Increasing the cost of electricity, increasing the cost of gasoline and taking $1,000 per year out of the pockets of each Wisconsin citizen to pay for this (legislation) will not create jobs."

Scores of business groups such as WMC insist the market, combined with reasonable federal standards, will prove far more effective in the long run. With the recession only now beginning to ease, they worry that stand-alone rules will harm the state's competitiveness.

"I don't think there's any benefit to get too far out ahead," Buchen told the Competitive Wisconsin board of directors.

Whether lawmakers act on the bill remains to be seen, but Gov. Jim Doyle has already signaled he's ready to talk about changes. Because Wisconsin is so dependent on coal-fired electricity plants, the state doesn't want to get caught flat-footed if federal standards demand a sudden conversion. Likewise, it doesn't want to stick out like a sore thumb among other states.

"California has caused people to push harder, and that's good," said Ford's Pintar, "but technology can only be shoved so far, so fast. More alignment is a better way."

Finding an energy-use "alignment" that better positions Wisconsin for the long run without harming competitiveness now won't be easy, but it will be necessary.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Second time around? Remarriages require unique financial planning

By Kevin Reardon
As we trudge our way through the heart of the winter season, many couples are thinking about more than just springtime and warmer weather. They're considering marriage. That includes older couples with kids, accumulated assets and debts and previous marriages behind them.

That's why marriages for older individuals require a specific sort of planning. For couples making another effort at marriage, a prenuptial agreement can either set the groundwork for a new and trusting relationship or reveal that money issues may prevent the marriage from working well.

It's actually not the agreement by itself that makes the difference -- it's the way the couple gets the agreement down on paper. When two parties sit down to formalize a prenuptial agreement with their respective mediators or attorneys, it requires both sides to make full disclosure of their current financial situation and long-term money goals.

Prenuptial agreements can be considerably more complex for couples making a repeat trip down the aisle. Money issues are not just a matter of full disclosure between two people. In remarriage, they can affect a much wider audience including aging parents, siblings and children and ex-spouses from previous marriages. In some cases, there are sizable business and personal assets gathered before the upcoming wedding day that must be protected.

It is always wise to consult a financial advisor such as a Certified Financial Planner professional to set the ground rules for this process, though legal documents that hold up in court generally need review by respective family law and estate attorneys.

So -- thinking about heading down the aisle one more time? Here are the primary issues any remarrying couple should discuss ahead of a formal engagement:

Families first
Blended families bring their own financial complications. Indeed, if couples are bringing children from previous marriages into a blended family, it's necessary to establish not only how they will be supported and educated, but also what percentage of the family assets they will be entitled to in case their biological parent dies. There may be alimony and other support arrangements already in place for ex-spouses and children from earlier marriages as well as elderly parents to support. All of these financial requirements need to be understood and spelled out beforehand.

Is there debt? And if so, how much?
The first money conversation should take place at a table with both sides showing their credit reports, savings, investments and debt figures -- every dime. Both should start the process of talking about how that debt should be paid off, by the person who accrued it, or by both potential spouses. Couples also need to decide how they will handle debt going forward -- jointly or separately.

What about investments?
If so, how will they be handled once the couple is married? Will these investments be held after the marriage is in joint tenancy? Are some of the investments promised to children, ex-spouses or other family members? From a tax or estate perspective, does it make sense to do anything specific with those assets before the wedding? And after the wedding -- assuming debt is being dealt with -- how will you maximize those investments?

What about company assets?
If one or both spouses run their own companies or partnerships, it's a huge planning priority. That's particularly true if other family members work for their respective companies. Depending on the size and complexity of the operation, some advisors might encourage couples to go through a formal valuation process of those assets to establish a base of wealth going into the marriage. A pre-nup could spell out who will get future percentages of those assets if the couple splits. This is particularly necessary if the goal is to keep the company in the hands of the founding family.

Handling daily expenses
This is a universal question in any marriage, the first or the sixth. Couples need to agree on how they'll share accounts and pay bills. The most common option is to create one joint account. Others work with three accounts -- one joint and then one for each individual.

What about insurance?
Life, health, home, and disability -- all coverage that singles hold separately needs to be reviewed and consolidated to make sure the couples and their families have adequate coverage after the wedding.

What about our estates?
Blended families with means produce a surprisingly complex estate picture. Engaged couples need to begin addressing this need before the wedding. A qualified estate attorney who understands the variety of estate issues affecting the assets, business issues and philanthropic commitments of blended families is a particularly good investment and can work with financial planners, tax attorneys and accountants to create an estate plan for the couple that makes sense and minimizes conflict among heirs.

What about retirement?
Retirement discussions go beyond money. Couples should decide how they want to live in retirement, whether they'll continue to work and what will happen if one or both get sick. This is a particularly important discussion if one spouse is significantly older than the other and may retire years ahead. There needs to be a close look at what retirement assets have been accumulated by both parties and how they'll be shared during the marriage and after the death of one or both of the spouses.

What about our tax status?
It makes sense for couples to consider their tax status before they marry, particularly if there are sizable business or personal assets being brought into the marriage or past tax liabilities. In any event, remarrying couples should involve a tax expert in all pre-marital financial planning.

Before you say, "I do," make sure your financial house is in order!

-- Reardon is owner & president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Nuclear power must be part of nation's alternative energy future

By Tom Still
If you were surprised to learn President Obama supports building the first nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly three decades, you may not have been listening closely during his run for the White House.

"Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity," Obama said during his 2008 campaign. "It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option."

Of course, Candidate Obama said a lot of things that may or may not happen on President Obama's watch. That's politics. But he has repeatedly backed nuclear power as a way to ease American dependence on foreign oil and to curb use of other fossil fuels blamed for global warming.

Now, if only more members of Obama's party would come around to the same conclusion.

Obama will support a loan guarantee to build two Southern Co. reactors in Burke, Ga., where site preparations are under way but construction is still years off. The Southern Co. has applied to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for a construction and operating license for the plant, one of 13 such applications under NRC review. It will likely take two years before the first is approved.

Even with that lengthy horizon, federal money to guarantee loans must be budgeted now, and that's precisely what Obama wants to do. In his Jan. 27 State of the Union speech, Obama called for a "new generation of clean, nuclear plants," and the Georgia reactors would fit that mold.

Two of the nation's 104 nuclear reactors are located in Wisconsin -- but they will be the last unless the state lifts what amounts to a moratorium on building new plants.

Wisconsin's Three Mile Island-era moratorium no longer makes sense. If you believe global climate change is the single largest environmental threat to the planet, you should embrace energy sources that don't emit greenhouse gases. If you believe there will be millions of new plug-in hybrid vehicles, all getting recharged while idle, you should want power sources that can reliably handle the load without generating more carbon.

Solar and wind power will be a part of the answer, but those alternatives can't measure up to nuclear energy when it comes to steady and massive production of electricity. Today, those alternatives account for about 2 percent of electricity generation.

Language in Wisconsin's proposed Clean Energy Jobs Act could relax the state's ban on building nuclear generation. That same act also includes a controversial mandate that 25 percent of Wisconsin's energy come from renewable power sources by 2025 -- a goal that will be difficult to meet without more nuclear power.

The problem with the moratorium language is that it appears to defy the interstate commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, as well as the laws of physics. The bill decrees that any new nuclear plant built in Wisconsin must serve Wisconsin consumers only. That's not physically possible because of how electricity flows from a power plant through transmission lines. Electricity is dispatched regionally across the Midwest according to needs as well as high-voltage ebbs and flows across the power grid.

Supporters of Wisconsin's nuclear moratorium have moved from arguing that nuclear power isn't safe (coal kills thousands of people each year around the world, while the U.S. nuclear industry has yet to kill anyone) to insisting it's too costly. Since 2005, according to the Wisconsin Public Research Group, the projected cost of building a reactor has tripled. But other sources say the cost per kilowatt for nuclear energy is falling, which may explain why the NRC is reviewing so many applications to build reactors.

There's nothing to lose by ending Wisconsin's 26-year-old moratorium, and it should be done without strings that challenge the constitution and science. Safe, reliable nuclear power plants can be built today, and they can help reduce greenhouse gases while curbing reliance on carbon-based fuels.

Lifting the moratorium doesn't mean Wisconsin will be build a new plant tomorrow or even within this decade. But removing the ban could give the state's ambitious alternative energy goals a fighting chance of actually being met.

-- Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

GreenBiz: Wind energy blowing hot and cold in state

By Gregg Hoffmann
The wind energy industry has been blowing hot and cold in Wisconsin during the recession, and according to some advocates, has faced negative factors and obstacles that go beyond the economic times.

A couple new projects have started. More could be on the way. But, progress in moving to what many feel could be a key sustainable energy source has been slowed somewhat by tight credit, limited venture capital and other financial factors during the overall economic downturn.

The American Wind Energy Association reported last year that the recession was taking "a serious toll" on wind energy development in the nation and Wisconsin. It noted that the industry was "already seeing layoffs in the area where wind's promise is greatest for our economy."

Wisconsin ranked 15th in the country in wind energy capacity in 2009, according to the AWEA. But, much of that capacity has not been developed because of what the executive director of RENEW Wisconsin terms "state specific" factors.

"There is no new construction currently going on in the state," Michael Vickerman said. "The recession is not the main reason for that."

Vickerman said major factors include siting problems around the state, in part because of local governments' restrictive ordinances, utilities wanting to control all generation of power and the practice of some utility companies of locating wind farms in surrounding states and then bringing the power from those sources to Wisconsin customers.

After two small wind farms go into operation this year in Dane and Brown counties, the state will have 479 megawatts of power coming from wind, Vickerman said. Minnesota has 2,000 megawatts and Iowa 3,600. Power from out-of-state sources can go toward satisfying state utilities' "quota" for renewable energy.

"Only Michigan trails Wisconsin in the Upper Midwest," Vickerman said.

According to the RENEW Wisconsin web site, nine wind energy projects had been completed in the state from 1998 to 2009. The largest of those are an 86 turbine project in Fond du Lac/Dodge counties and an 88 turbine farm in Fond du Lac county.

Twenty-two projects had been proposed as of July 2009, as interest in sustainable energy has grown and the Obama administration has promoted such alternatives. But, seven of those projects have not received permits. They include a proposed 98-turbine project in Two Creeks by Pattern Energy. Projects of more than 100 turbines in Stockbridge-Brothertown and 99 turbines in Rock and Belmont counties also are listed as having no permits.

Work has not started on others that do have permits. One in the Ridgeville-Wilton area is listed as being "in litigation."

Seven proposed projects are listed as having 2010 in-service dates, but some of those could be slowed by the economy and, in some cases, opposition from some citizens in communities where they would be located.

On Jan. 11 of this year, the Public Service Commission approved a permit for what would be the largest wind farm in the state, a 90-turbine facility called Glacier Hills in Columbia County.

Cost of the facility, to be built by Wisconsin Electric Power Company, could reach $435 million. Work is scheduled to begin in the second quarter of this year, with completion in 2011.

"When built, Glacier Hills will be the largest wind farm in Wisconsin," said PSC chairman Eric Callisto when the permit was granted. "Today's action will not only provide the state with a facility that will increase the capacity of generation from wind by 30 to 46 percent, but also will allow the utility to provide needed renewable and low carbon energy to make future RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard) requirements."

Some citizen groups expressed concern about the Glacier Hills wind farm. Opposition to wind farms in Byron township in Fond du Lac County has divided neighbors and prompted controversy.

In Manitowoc County last year, the Board of Adjustment rejected a request by Emerging Energies LLP to build a seven-turbine wind far in the Town of Mishicot. That led to wind energy supporters challenging the county ordinance on wind farm permits and calling for the state, not local governments, to have the say where wind farms are located.

State Rep. Bob Ziegelbauer, who also is Manitowoc County executive, told The Daily Reporter the county ordinance was "reasonable and was created in good faith." He added, "This isn't the final say in the matter by any means."

Concerns from neighbors about wind farms usually revolve around aesthetics of the operations, noise from the turbines and possible negative impacts on migratory birds. Some also doubt how efficient wind energy is.

Out-of-state wind farms that will serve Wisconsin customers are not immune to opposition. A lawsuit could delay the construction of the Bent Tree facility in Minnesota. The Wisconsin Industrial Energy Group and the Citizens Utility Board of Wisconsin sued the Public Service Commission claiming the latter approved the project without adequate analysis of possible environmental effects and costs. Alliant Energy plans to use electricity from the plant for Wisconsin customers.

Legislation passed last fall that would transfer permitting for wind farms from local governments to the state. The Public Service Commission still has to enact the transfer.

"That should help next year," Vickerman said.

The bad economy also has caused some wind energy developers to cut back or at least move slower on projects. Sun Prairie-based Wave Wind, cut its staff from 85 in 2008 to the mid-20s in 2009 because of the downturn.

"Last year was slow," Wave Wind VP Jeff Wilkinson told WisBusiness.com recently. "We hope 2010 will be a mirror image of 2008. Our business was down last year, but compared to the industry, we were above the average."

Some potential projects other than wind farms also have supporters of the industry hopeful. A Spanish company, Ingeteam, has talked with state and Milwaukee officials about locating a turbine generator factory in the city. That factory could create 100 to 200 jobs and provide needed equipment to state wind projects as well as others around the world.

The state also has a handful of companies working on wind energy components, including:
-- Red Arrow Energy Systems in Hubertus making wind turbines;
-- Magnetek in Menomonee Falls making power inverters for wind turbines, and;
-- Bassett Mechanical in Kaukauna planning to manufacture wind turbine towers.

State government has taken some steps to help the wind industry develop. Gov. Jim Doyle signed a turbine-siting law on Sept. 30 that many believe will make it easier to build wind farms in the state.

Legislation ranging from the establishment of Advanced Renewable Tariffs to provide long-term economic support for smaller scale energy resources to more standardization for wind energy permitting process are possibilities. Some bills have created controversy and could take longer than advocates hoped.

Perhaps the biggest of these bills from the viewpoint of wind energy advocates is the Clean Energy Jobs Act. It was introduced Jan. 7 of this year and incorporates several energy-related policies recommended by Gov. Doyle's Global Warming Task Force.

If adopted, it would increase the state's Renewable Energy Standard to 25 percent by 2025. The bill proposes buyback rates that would stimulate the installation of smaller scale renewable generation.

"To be certain that Glacier Hills will not be the last large wind project constructed in Wisconsin, the Legislature must raise the current renewable-energy standard on utilities," Vickerman said.

"The provisions in the recently introduced Clean Energy Jobs Act, which we strongly support, would life that requirement to 25 percent by 2025."

Wind energy advocates say that now is the time for Wisconsin to better position itself, so more projects can start when the economy starts to recover.

-- Hoffmann has written many columns and features for WisPolitics.com and WisBusiness.com over the years. He will write the GreenBiz column monthly.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It might be clean but it's not a jobs act

By Bart Adams
Gov. Jim Doyle and his Global Warming Task Force committee have introduced legislation to be considered this session that would increase the state's renewable energy portfolio to 25 percent by 2025.

There is no disputing that alternative and clean energy sources present a tremendous growth opportunity for any business that can introduce cost effective technology that will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels, however this mandate is not the correct policy path for the state of Wisconsin.

The Independent Business Association of Wisconsin stands against this piece of legislation due to the net loss of jobs that this bill will have on the manufacturing base of this state based on the necessary increase in the price of energy to support the mandates.

Wisconsin utilities produce nearly 60 percent of their energy from coal which is one of the leading culprits of carbon emissions, but also the most cost-effective way of providing for our energy needs. Wisconsin presently ranks slightly below the national kilowatt per hour average at a cost of 9.57 cents.

Without the technologies to effectively replace coal at a cost competitive pricing point, the price of energy in Wisconsin will have to go up. There is great potential for electrical rates to more than double with the enactment of this legislation.

Recently, the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy at Suffolk University found that the proposed measures could have the exact opposite of a "jobs bill." According to Beacon Hill, the Global Warming Task Force recommendations would cost Wisconsin 43,000 private sector jobs and $1.59 billion of wages. Wisconsin's paper industry alone could lose 1,934 more jobs.

The IBA recognizes that there could be "green jobs" created by this measure and the supporters of this legislation have estimated that number to be 15,000 potential public and private sector jobs. Based on the two projections that is a net loss of nearly 30,000 jobs.

There are several cutting-edge alternative energy and energy efficiency companies that are within our state such as Johnson Controls, Orion Energy Systems, Energy Composites Corporation, and many others and we should certainly encourage the growth of the businesses that are involved in this field.

Wisconsin has a higher concentration of employees in the field of manufacturing than any other State in the Union, with 15.6 percent of our workers earning a living in this field. This number is already down from 17 percent of workers at the beginning of the Great Recession.

The last thing that our manufacturers need for their competitiveness is a dramatic increase in their energy bills. The consumption of energy is one of the highest operating expenses that a manufacturer encounters and a Clean Energy Jobs Mandate may benefit a select few companies within our state, but it will also put the vast majority of our manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage which will lead to more manufacturing jobs being shifted to areas of the world with less restrictions and a more cost competitive structure for operations.

The IBA is not qualified to debate the alleged science of global warming and while the supporters of this bill claim that the cost of doing nothing to address climate change is far greater than the cost of implementing this legislation, it should be noted that the 65,503 square miles that the state of Wisconsin encompasses represent a mere 2 percent of the land mass of the entire United States. Any restrictions that Wisconsin imposes on itself would be infinitesimal on the effect of overall carbon levels in the atmosphere.

The state of California has tried this "go at it alone" attempt to reduce carbon emissions with legislation passed in 2006. Mired with a 12.3 percent unemployment rate the state of California is attempting to put a measure on the ballot for this November to repeal the legislation in order to spur job growth.

The state-by-state implementation of this type of legislation presents competitive disadvantages in retaining and recruiting businesses and the state of Wisconsin should not preempt any national federal mandates and make the same mistake as California.

-- Adams is vice president of state programs of the Independent Business Association of Wisconsin and managing shareholder for Kolb + Co.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Heads up: Roth IRA conversions take 2010 by storm

By Kevin Reardon
By now, most people are aware that 2010 is a special year for Roth IRA conversions. Previously, only those with Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) below $100,000 were allowed to convert IRA assets to Roth IRAs. In 2010, the income ceiling for Roth conversions is permanently repealed. High income earners have a new planning opportunity available to them.

A Roth conversion is a complex financial planning issue that requires a detailed look at each individual's situation, along with making judgments regarding future taxable income, and future tax rates when distributions might occur. Before examining the pros and cons of a conversion, let's step back and examine the characteristics that go with Roth IRAs and conversions.

Roth IRAs have been around for 12 years, allowing individuals to contribute after-tax money into these accounts. Once in the accounts, assets grow tax deferred like traditional retirement accounts. The difference, however, is that qualified Roth IRA distributions are tax-free, whereas distributions from other tax deferred accounts (401ks, IRAs, Annuities) are taxable.

Individuals in higher income brackets are prohibited from contributing to Roth IRAs, forcing them to direct savings into tax deferred accounts. As tax deferred account balances grow, the challenge for individuals without Roth IRAs is revealed as they near retirement. Not only are distributions from traditional IRA and 401k plans taxable, but the distributions frequently push individuals into higher tax brackets, increase the taxability of Social Security benefits, and reduce available deductions or exemptions. Lastly, at age 70 1/2, traditional IRA account owners are forced to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs), increasing their tax liability.

Wisconsin residents should know that the state has not adopted P.L.109 222 to recognize Roth conversions. Unless Wisconsin adopts this law, taxpayers under age 59 1/2 with income over $100,000 will be faced with an early withdrawal penalty of 3.33% and an excess contribution penalty of 2% annually. Fear not, as a technique known as a "Roth Re-characterization" allows us to reverse a Roth conversion as if it never happened. Therefore, this current rule should not prohibit us from leveraging this technique.

The tax resulting from Roth conversions can be deferred, and split between your 2011 and 2012 tax returns. Pushing the tax into these years can be a smart decision if you are confident you will be in a similar or lower tax bracket than you are in 2010. With tax rates slated to rise in 2011 for those in the 25% income tax bracket and above, paying the tax in 2010 may be the right option.

The following are several reasons why someone might convert to a Roth IRA. This list is a starting point as you discuss your overall financial plan and goals. Please consult with your financial advisor or CPA before proceeding with a conversion.

Reasons to Convert to a Roth IRA

1. Liquidity: A Roth conversion will generate income taxes. To maximize the benefit of the conversion, you should have liquid assets available outside of the IRAs to pay the conversion tax.

2. No Need for your IRA Money: If you have sufficient assets outside of your retirement accounts and won't need your IRA assets, converting to a Roth IRA is a strong consideration. Roth IRAs do not have Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) like traditional IRA accounts. This gives more tax control to individuals who may not need to access IRA assets until after age 70 1/2.

3. Tax Control: Income stacking occurs when you begin adding up all of your income sources in retirement. It is not uncommon for individuals to have earned income, social security income, pension income, interest income, dividend income, passive income from real estate investments, and short term and long term capital gains. If you need to take a distribution from an IRA, or are forced to take an RMD, this income is added to your other income sources and could push you into a higher tax bracket or simply increase your tax liability. You have less control of your income tax liability when you have assets in an IRA relative to a Roth IRA.

4. Inheritance: In relation to #2 and #3 above, if your children are likely to inherit your IRA, Roth IRAs are a fantastic asset to pass to the next generation as distributions are tax-free. Forecasting the tax-free growth of this asset over two generations will demonstrate a huge advantage of Roth IRAs over traditional retirement accounts. If your children are likely to be in a similar to higher tax bracket than you, consider a conversion.

5. Future Tax Rates: By converting your IRA to a Roth IRA in 2010, you can pay tax at a known rate (2010 tax rates if you choose), and a rate that is low relative to historical tax rates. In addition to potentially rising tax rates, keep in mind that certain deductions, exemptions, and credits may be reduced moving forward, further increasing your tax liability. If you think you will be in a similar or higher tax bracket in retirement, a conversion today can make sense.

6. Tax Diversification: Most individuals have after-tax accounts (savings accounts, investment accounts, etc.) and tax deferred accounts (IRAs, 401ks, Annuities) but don't have a tax-free Roth IRA account. By converting some or all of your IRA assets into a Roth IRA, you can choose which accounts to draw from in retirement to best maximize your situation and to diversify some of your assets against future tax changes.

7. Reduced Market Values: Given the low returns of the last decade, many retirement accounts are at low levels. Converting accounts now, while values are low, moves an asset to a tax preferred account with minimum tax liability. Conversions early in 2010 are recommended.

8. Favorable Tax Attributes: Charitable deduction carryovers, investment tax credits, or low current income in 2010 are all incentives to do Roth conversions in 2010.

9. Income Tax Bracket Filling: If you have room within your current income tax bracket to incur more income, than a partial Roth conversion is a great way to maximize your current bracket.

10. Estate Planning: Although Roth IRAs are included in your taxable estate, a Roth conversion helps to reduce the value of your estate (via the income tax -- which is lower than estate tax). In addition, Roth IRAs are not subject to estate and income taxes when withdrawn by your beneficiaries.

-- Reardon is owner & president of Brookfield-based Shakespeare Wealth Management Inc.


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