When preparing for retirement, it can be important to save money in different types of accounts to give you flexibility when it comes time to spend those funds. One of the most powerful and misunderstood types of accounts is the Roth. A Roth account is an after-tax retirement account that can be in the form of an IRA or an employer-sponsored plan such as a 401(k). The after-tax component means you pay tax on the front end when receiving the income, and in exchange, you can receive tax-free growth and tax-free withdrawals if you follow the rules of the Roth. There are three components to consider: contributions, conversions, and earnings. Contributions and conversions refer to the principal amount that you contribute or convert, while earnings refer to the investment growth in the account. There are contribution and eligibility limits set by the IRS each year, but today we will focus on withdrawing funds from a Roth IRA to maximize the after-tax benefit.
After you contribute to a Roth IRA, you can withdraw that contribution amount (principal) at any time without paying taxes or the 10% penalty. That is an often-overlooked fact that can come in handy.
Example: Ted is 38 years old and decides to open his first Roth IRA. He contributes $5,000 to the account immediately after opening it. Two years later, Ted finds himself in a financial bind and needs $5,000 for a car repair. One of the possible solutions for Ted is that he could pull up to $5,000 from his Roth IRA without paying any tax or penalty.
A Roth conversion is when you move funds from a pre-tax account such as a traditional IRA. You will owe income tax on the amount that you convert. This can be a powerful strategy to take control of when and how much you pay in taxes. There is no limit to how much you can convert.
When it comes to withdrawing money used in a Roth conversion, five years need to have passed or you need to be at least 59.5 years old to withdraw the conversion penalty-free. It is important to remember that each conversion has a separate 5-year clock.
Example: Beth is 50 when she executes a $40,000 conversion from her IRA to her Roth IRA in January 2020. In March 2025, Beth finds herself needing $40,000 for a home renovation. One of the possible solutions is that Beth could pull up to $40,000 from the conversion that she did over five years ago even though she is under 59.5.
When it comes to withdrawing earnings from growth that has occurred after contributing or completing a conversion, you must wait until age 59.5 and five years need to have passed since you first contributed or completed a conversion. If you don’t follow both of those rules, then you could have to potentially pay income tax on the growth and a 10% penalty.
Example: With our previous examples above with Ted and Beth, even though they can withdraw their contribution and conversion respectively, neither of them can touch the earnings in their Roth accounts until they are 59.5 and have satisfied the 5-year rule.
Other Important Details
There are a few other exceptions that allow a person to avoid the penalty and/or income tax, such as a death, disability, or first-time home purchase.
For ordering rules, when a withdrawal is made from a Roth IRA, the IRS considers that money to be taken from contributions first, then conversions when contributions are exhausted, and then finally earnings.
- Have a thorough understanding of the rules before withdrawing any funds from a Roth account.
- Speed up the 5-year clock.
- You can technically satisfy the 5-year clock in less than five years. You can make contributions for a previous year until the tax filing date (typically April 15th, but as of this writing, it may be April 18th in 2022). This means that a contribution on April 1st, 2022, could be designated to count toward 2021, and the clock will count as starting on January 1st, 2021. This shaves 15 months off the 5-year clock! Note: Conversions must be complete by the calendar year’s end (12/31), but you can still shave 11 months off the 5-year clock.
- Start the 5-year clock now!
- Even a $1 contribution or conversion starts the clock for you to be able to harness tax-free gains, so start as soon as possible.
- After the passing of the SECURE ACT in 2019, most non-spousal IRA beneficiaries must now fully distribute inherited IRAs within ten years. This means that an inherited Roth IRA owner could potentially allow the inherited Roth to grow tax-free for up to ten more years and then withdraw those funds tax-free. If it fits into an individual’s financial plan, this can be a tremendous tax strategy to take advantage of.
Roth accounts can be incredible but also very confusing. As advisors, we figure out the best way to use these accounts to your advantage in terms of maximizing growth and minimizing taxes. If you have any questions about how you can best utilize a Roth account, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. We are always happy to help you and those you care about!
Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable; however, Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Nothing in these materials is intended to serve as personalized tax and/or investment advice since the availability and effectiveness of any strategy is dependent upon your individual facts and circumstances. Merriman does not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such.