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<<If I convert my IRA to a Roth in 1998 I understand that I get to pay the tax on it over 4 years. But
the question is, does the amount of the conversion get claimed as income over 4 years, or does the
tax liability itself get divided by 4 years? ... The difference is the possibility that, if claimed in one year, it would push me into a higher tax bracket.>>

It's the *income* (a distribution, in IRSese) which is ratably spread over the next 4 years (98,99,00,01), NOT the taxes per se. Thus, as you have noted, you could find yourself in a new tax bracket if you foolishly (small 'f') convert a large amount and are close to the 15%/28% bracket line this year or will be close in one of the subsequent 3 years, due to raises and/or unexpected income (capital gains/dividends/lottery winnings/etc.). My advice (free & worth every penny you paid) is 'festina lente', which is Latin for 'Make haste slowly.' IOW, take a close look before you leap; Roth IRAs are a great deal (for most folks) but NOT worth a tax hike if you can avoid it by converting slowly.

<<...Also, does the WHOLE amount have to be claimed as income, or just the contribution amount and not the gains?>>

The amount claimed as income, I believe, is the sum in your traditional IRA which has not already been taxed. IOW, ALL of your earnings (these are tax-deferred, remember) & the portion of contributions which were tax-deductible when added originally. This latter sum is your 'basis' and can be found on line 2 of IRS form 8606 of your tax return, which should be lying around someplace nearby round about now, since it's mid-April. Hope this helps. Chris S.
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