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Beware of the 5 Year Rule for Your Roth Assets

Being able to save money in a Roth account, whether in a company retirement plan or an IRA, has great benefits.  You invest money, hopefully that money grows, and when you use it during retirement you don’t pay taxes on your distributions.  But is that always the case?  The answer is no.  There is an IRS rule that you must take note of known as the “5 Year Rule”.  There are a number of scenarios where this rule could impact you and rather than getting too much into the weeds, this post is meant to serve as a public service announcement so you are aware it exists.

Advantages of a Roth

As previously mentioned, the benefit of Roth assets is that the account grows tax deferred and if the distributions are “qualified” you don’t have to pay taxes.  This is compared to a Traditional IRA/401(k) where the full distribution is taxed at ordinary income tax rates and regular investment accounts where you pay taxes on dividends/interest each year and capital gains taxes when you sell holdings.  A quick example of Roth vs. Traditional below:

  Roth Traditional
Original Investment  $     10,000.00  $ 10,000.00
Earnings  $     10,000.00  $ 10,000.00
Total Account Balance  $     20,000.00  $ 20,000.00
Taxes (Assume 25%)  $                   –    $   5,000.00
Account Value at Distribution  $     20,000.00  $ 15,000.00

This all seems great, and it is, but there are benefits of both Roth and Traditional (Pre-Tax) accounts so don’t think you have to start moving everything to Roth now.  This article gives more detail on the two different types of accounts and may help you decide which is best for you Traditional vs. Roth IRA’s: Differences, Pros, and Cons.

Qualified Disbursements

For the distributions from the Roth to be completely tax free, they must be “Qualified”.  Below is the definition directly from the IRS Website.

Note the “occurs at least five years after the year of the employee’s first designated Roth contribution”.  This is the “5 Year Rule”.  The other qualifications are the same for Traditional IRA’s, but the “5 Year Rule” is special for Roth money.  Not always good to be special.

It seems pretty straight forward and in most cases it is.  Open a Roth IRA, let it grow at least 5 years, and as long as I’m 59.5 my distributions are qualified.  Someone who has Roth money in a 401(k) or other employer sponsored plan may think it is just as easy.  That isn’t always the case.  Typically, an employee retires, and they roll their retirement savings into a Traditional or a Roth IRA.  Say I worked at the company for 10 years, and I now retire and want to use all the savings I’ve created for myself throughout the years.  I can start taking qualified distributions from my Roth IRA because I started contributing 10 years ago, correct?  Wrong!  The time you we’re contributing to the Roth 401(k) is not transferred to the new Roth IRA.  If you took distributions directly from the 401(k) and we’re at least 59.5 they would be qualified.  In most cases however, people don’t start using their 401(k) money until retirement and most plans only allow for lump sum distributions once you are no longer with the company.

So what do you do?

Open a Roth IRA outside of the plan with a small balance well before you plan to use the money.  If I fund a Roth IRA with $100, 10 years from now I retire and roll my Roth 401(k) into that Roth IRA, I have satisfied the 5 year rule because I opened that Roth IRA account 10 years ago.  The clock starts on the date the Roth IRA was opened, not the date the assets are transferred in.

 

Rob Mangold

About Rob………

Hi, I’m Rob Mangold. I’m the Chief Operating Officer at Greenbush Financial Group and a contributor to the Money Smart Board blog. We created the blog to provide strategies that will help our readers personally, professionally, and financially. Our blog is meant to be a resource. If there are questions that you need answered, please feel free to join in on the discussion or contact me directly.

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