If you've moved jobs while holding a traditional 401(k), you're probably familiar with the rollover options for these ubiquitous retirement accounts. You may be less sure, though, of your options when you leave an employer with which you have a Roth 401(k), the newer and less prevalent cousin of the traditional 401(k). (As a quick reminder, the main difference between the accounts is that traditional 401(k)s are funded with pretax dollars, where Roth contributions are in post-tax dollars, resulting in no tax hit from making a qualified withdrawal later.)

If your job is at stake or you're considering a career move, here's a rundown of the moves you can take with your Roth 401(k) account when changing employers.

Key Takeaways

  • A Roth 401(k) can be rolled over to a new or existing Roth IRA or Roth 401(k).
  • As a rule, a transfer to a Roth IRA is most desirable, since it facilitates a wider range of investment options.
  • It's best to move the money to an existing Roth IRA account, if you have one, because of the five-year rule governing qualified distributions.
  • If you plan to withdraw the transferred funds soon, moving them to another Roth 401(k) may provide more favorable tax treatment.

The Rollover Options

For the most part, your choices for a Roth 401(k) follow those of a traditional 401(k), but the transfers should be to Roth versions of the available accounts: If you opt to roll over the funds to an IRA, the funds from the Roth 401(k) should be transferred into a Roth IRA. If your new employer has a Roth 401(k) option and allows for transfers, you should also be able to roll the "old" Roth 401(k) into the "new" Roth 401(k).

Rolling over a Roth 401(k) into a Roth IRA is generally optimal, particularly because the investment choices within an IRA are typically wider and better than those of a 401(k) plan. "More frequently than not, individual IRA accounts have more options than a 401(k)," said Carlos Dias Jr., wealth manager, at Excel Tax & Wealth Group, Lake Mary, Fla. "Depending on the custodian, sometimes your options in a 401(k) are limited to mutual funds or a few different ETFs, versus being able to invest in a plethora of choices [in an IRA]."

Note, however, that funds in 401(k)s are better protected against many legal judgments. This could be a reason for choosing the new-employer's-401(k) option.

The best way to accomplish a rollover to either a Roth IRA or another Roth 401(k) is from trustee to trustee. This ensures a seamless transaction that should not be challenged later by the IRS as to whether it was made for the full amount or in a timely manner.

If, however, you decide to have the funds sent to you instead of directly to the new trustee, you can still roll over the entire distribution to a Roth IRA within 60 days of receipt. If you choose this route, however, the paying trustee is generally required to withhold 20% of the account balance for taxes.

1:43

Know The Rules For Roth 401(k) Rollovers

Distributions From Your Rolled-Over Roth

Although it is usually not advisable to tap retirement funds before you leave the workforce, in tight times the undesireable may become the only option. If you must withdraw money from your Roth at the time of the rollover or soon after that, be aware that the timing rules for such withdrawals differ from those of traditional IRAs and 401(k)s. Some of these requirements may also apply to Roths that are rolled over when you're at or close to retirement age.

Specifically, to make distributions from these accounts without incurring any taxes or penalties, the distribution must be "qualified." That requires that it meets what is known the five-year rule. Also applied to inherited retirement accounts, this rule requires that funds had remained intact in the account for a five-year period in order to avoid or at least minimize taxes and penalties. (While this may sound relatively simple, the five-year rule can actually be quite tricky, and careful consideration of how it applies to your situation—and perhaps a good tax advisor—is recommended.)

A Roth 401(k) Rolled Into a Roth IRA

Roth IRA contributions can be withdrawn at any time tax-free and penalty-free regardless of age. However, the rules for distributions of earnings vary. A qualified distribution from a Roth IRA is one that meets the five-year rule and is also made after age 59½, after death, or as the result of a disability or a first-time home purchase. These qualified distributions are free of both taxes and penalties.

If these conditions are not met, withdrawals from the account will be subject to both selective income taxes and a penalty. "If you do make a non-qualified distribution, income taxes will be levied only on earnings on your contributions, but a 10% penalty will be applied to the total amount," said Mark Hebner, founder and president of Index Fund Advisors, Inc., Irvine, Calif., and author of "Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors."

As we explain below, funds from a Roth 401(k) rolled into another such account is subject to favorable treatment as regards the five-year holding period. The same treatment does not apply, alas, to the timing of a Roth 401(k) that's rolled over to a new Roth IRA. On the other hand, if you already have a Roth IRA account, the holding period for that account applies to all of its funds, including those rolled over from a Roth 401(k) account.

To illustrate this impact, let's assume that your Roth IRA was opened in 2010. You worked at your employer from 2016-2019 and were then let go or quit. Because the Roth IRA that you are rolling the funds into has been in existence for more than five years, the full distribution rolled into the Roth IRA meets the five-year rule for qualified distributions.

On the other hand, if you did not have an existing Roth IRA and had to establish one for purposes of the rollover, the five-year period begins the year the Roth IRA was opened, regardless of how long you had been contributing to the Roth 401(k).

The need for these retirement funds should, then, be considered prior to rolling money from a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA. That's particularly the case if there is not already a Roth IRA in place, since the five-year holding period would begin anew under this scenario.

A Roth 401(k) Rolled Into Another Roth 401(k)

If you roll your old Roth 401(k) to a new Roth 401(k), the specific distribution rules from the new account will vary by the plan itself; your new employer's human resources department should be able to assist with that.

However, some basic conditions should apply. If you decide to roll over the funds from your old Roth 401(k) to your new Roth 401(k) through a trustee-to-trustee transfer (also called a direct rollover), the number of years the funds were in the old plan should count toward the five-year period for qualified distributions. However, the previous employer must contact the new employer about the amount of employee contributions that are being rolled over and must confirm the first year they were made.

Note, too, that the rollover generally must be complete in order for the new funds to enjoy the carryover of the time period from the old Roth 401(k). If an employee did only a partial rollover to the new Roth 401(k), the five-year period would start again. That is, you do not get credit for the amount of time the funds were in your old Roth 401(k).

Before making a decision, speak to your tax or financial advisor about what may be best for you. One option could even be leaving the Roth 401(k) in your previous employer's plan, depending on the circumstances and that plan's rules.

The Bottom Line

Rules for rolling over a Roth 401(k) are very complicated. Be sure you fully investigate the tax and other implications before you decide how to handle these funds after you leave the company whose plan held those funds. Doing this wrong could be costly.