Roth IRAs are on the minds of many of our clients and listeners. If you’re concerned that taxes may be higher in the future, you may want to learn more about Roth Accounts. In a Roth account, you pay taxes on the money today and can then allow it to grow tax-free.
However, you also need to be aware of the 5-year rule for Roth IRA conversions. The rule is a small caveat that is easy to overlook, but it impacts your ability to withdraw your earnings without penalties or taxes.
5-Year Rule for Roth IRA Contribution: Limits and Requirements
You can contribute to a Roth, but there is an income level that you need to be concerned about. We won’t go into these levels in great detail, but a lot of companies are offering Roth 401(k) options to circumvent these income limits – just a contribution limit.
If you contribute money into a traditional Roth IRA, it’s 100% liquid. You can put $10,000 in and take it right back out of the account.
However, the 5-year rule pertains to the interest earned on the account.
Example 1: the 59 ½ Rule
For example, let’s say that I’m 40 years old and I put $10,000 into a Roth IRA. Fast-forward 10 years. Now I’m 50 years old, and the $10,000 I put into the account has swelled to $20,000. You’re past the 5-year rule, but you’re not 59 1/2 yet.
You can take out the $10,000 that you put into the account without penalties, but you cannot touch the interest until you reach the 59 1/2 threshold.
Example 2: the 5-year Rule
Since many of our listeners and clients are past the 59 1/2 age requirement, let’s look at another example of someone who is 60 and contributes to a new Roth IRA. In four years, they gain $3,000 – $4,000 in interest, but since it’s a new Roth, they cannot take the interest out with a penalty based on the 5-year rule.
So, the 5-year rule for a new Roth IRA account has two main components:
- 59 1/2 years of age to touch the interest
- 5 years to take out the interest without 10% tax penalty and paying taxes on the interest
Even if you’re 65 and just opened the account, you still need to wait five years before you can touch the interest without being concerned about penalties or taxes.
Note: Contributions into Roth IRAs are always penalty-free, as you’ve already paid taxes on the money.
5-Year Rule for Roth IRA Conversions
Conversions and contributions are different. A Roth conversion is not subject to limits, so if you have pre-taxed assets, you can convert $1 million (or whatever amount you like). Let’s say that you have a traditional IRA. You can convert 100% of the account if you like.
However, you will need to pay taxes today on the money that you’re converting into the Roth IRA to leverage this tax-free bucket.
How Does the 5-Year Rule Impact Roth IRA Conversions?
Roth conversions are very powerful and beneficial because your money can grow tax-free. The rules on these conversions are different, so let’s look at an example:
- This person is 60 years of age
- $1 million in pre-tax IRA
- $100,000 converted into a Roth IRA
- **This is the first time the person opened a Roth IRA
The person is above the age of 59 1/2, so they meet this threshold for taking money out of the account without penalties. However, since this is the first time the person has had a Roth IRA account, they must wait five years before being able to withdraw on the tax-free growth.
Let’s say that if the person comes back in two years and wants to take out $30,000 for a new roof, they can do so because they’re not touching the tax-free growth on the account.
If you’re under the age of 59 1/2 or fall into one of the following categories, there are some exceptions:
- First-time homebuyer
Pro Tips: The clock starts ticking from the moment you open the account. Let’s say that you did a conversion at 55 and a conversion at 60. You don’t need to worry about the 5-year rule. We recommend converting even a small amount into a Roth IRA to get the clock started so that the account is open for 5 years.
Note: Always be sure to consult with a financial advisor before making any distributions to ensure that you follow all the rules and regulations.
Example of the Power of Roth IRA Conversions
In this example, let’s say you’re 60 years old and opening a brand-new Roth account to start doing $50,000 into conversions per year for 5 years. We’re not worried about the 59 1/2 age rule, and we estimate that the account will earn 5% compound interest annually.
|Year 1:||Conversion of $50,000 + 5% interest ($2,500) = $52,500 total|
|Year 2:||Conversion of $50,000 + 5% interest on ($52,500 + 50,000 = $5,125 = $107,625 total|
|Year 3:||Conversion of $50,000 + 5% interest on ($107,625 + 50,000) = $7,881.25 = $165,506.25 total|
|Year 4:||Conversion of $50,000 + 5% interest on ($165,506.25 + 50,000) = $10,775.31 = $226,281.56 total|
|Year 5:||Conversion of $50,000 + 5% interest on ($226,281.56 + 50,000 = $13,814.08 = $290,095.64 total|
Cumulative growth on your money is very powerful. You’ve contributed $250,000 in conversions and earned over $40,000 in interest in just five years.
What happens if, in year four, you need to take a withdrawal?
At year 4, you have an account total of $226,281.56. How much can you take out of the account? You can take out $200,000 because those are your contributions. At the end of year 5, you have 100% access to the money because you hit all thresholds.
Walking you through some math, let’s assume that you don’t need the money and let the $290,095.64 sit for 15 years without any further conversions or contributions.
Based on 5% interest per year, your $250,000 put into the account would now be $602,998.22.
You’ve earned over $350,000 in interest alone.
Now, you want to take out $350,000 and pay taxes on it. You would need to pay a huge chunk of money if you didn’t pay taxes already. However, since you did a conversion of $50,000 a year, you paid 22% in taxes or $11,000 in taxes per conversion.
- $55,000 in taxes total for all contributions
- Gained $350,000 in interest that is 100% tax-free
You achieved great tax-free growth and can now withdraw the $350,000 in its entirety.
With that said, Roth IRAs have their advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages of a Roth Conversion
Roth accounts are one of our favorites and we like them so much because of how advantageous they are. You benefit from:
- Tax-free growth that grows over time.
- Not subject to required minimum distributions. Unlike a 401(k) or other pre-tax accounts, you don’t need to take a required minimum distribution (RMD) on the account. You can keep the money in the Roth for as long as you wish, allowing you to be in more control.
- Tax diversification because you have a sizeable tax-free asset. You can blend withdrawal strategies using taxable and non-taxable accounts to minimize taxes.
- Estate planning benefits also exist. You can pass the account to your heirs, who can take tax-free distributions over their lifetime. Beneficiaries must withdraw the entire account over 10 years and can allow it to remain in the account for 10 years and still don’t need to pay taxes on the growth.
- Hedge against future tax rates because this tax-free bucket will not be subject to higher taxes, which we’re very likely to see in 2026 unless major legislation is otherwise passed.
Disadvantages of a Roth Conversion
While we’re major fans of Roth IRAs for retirement planning, Roth conversions are not ideal for everyone. These disadvantages are things you should keep in mind.
- Immediate tax burden. You will need to pay taxes on the conversion, which no one likes. But you benefit from the money growing tax-free.
- Potential of lost tax benefit. If you’re at a higher tax bracket today but in the future taxes are lower, you lose the benefit of lower taxes. We don’t know what the tax rate will be in 10, 15, or 20 years from now.
- Loss of liquidity. You lose some liquidity with your money because, in many cases, you’ll use outside funds to fund the account, such as cash.
- 5-year rule. Of course, you do have to wait 5 years to touch any of the interest in the account.
- Potential impact on other benefits. If you’re about to convert at Medicare age, you may have to pay an IRMAA surcharge for a single year of the conversion.
If you’re looking at this and have questions, it is very overwhelming. However, you can always schedule a call with us right on our website to go over this information in greater detail.