When household bills start piling up or unexpected expenses crop up, reaching into your retirement savings may seem appealing in the short term. Retirement accounts like Roth and traditional IRAs and 401(k) plans are not designed for easy access. If you raid your retirement funds without knowing the rules, you risk losing part of your savings to penalties and tax payments. A Roth 401(k) account is not immune to these problems, despite being funded with after-tax dollars.

What is a Roth 401(k)?

It is a combination of a 401(k) and a Roth IRA offered by nearly 70 percent of employers as an alternative to a 401(k). Contributions are made with after-tax dollars, meaning you don't pay taxes on your contributions or earnings when you retire. In 2019, you can contribute $19,000 a year or $25,000 if you are age 50 or older.

These accounts come with a minimum distribution rule--you have to start accessing the funds at age 70 1/2. Unlike a Roth IRA, which allows its owner to keep funds in the account until death.

Rules for Making a Roth 401(k) Withdrawal

To make a "qualified" withdrawal from a Roth 401(k) account, the account holder must have been contributing to the account for at least the previous five years, and be either 59 1/2 years old, deceased, or completely and permanently disabled. In the case of being deceased the funds would go to the deceased beneficiaries.

In addition, the terms of Roth 401(k) accounts stipulate that required minimum distributions must begin by age 70 1/2 or when the account holder retires, whichever comes later. Because contributions to a Roth plan are made with after-tax dollars, you do not need to pay income tax on qualified distributions, though you would still report them to the IRS on Form 1099-R when filing your taxes.

If the account holder owns a 5 percent or larger share of the employing company, the distribution must begin at age 70 1/2 regardless of employment status.

Many people either decide to retire before they reach 59 1/2 or simply end up needing retirement funds for other purposes earlier in life. If a withdrawal is made from a Roth 401(k) account that does not meet the above criteria, it is considered "unqualified" and incurs income taxes.

Unqualified Withdrawals and Taxes

Taxes are only assessed on the earnings portion of a Roth 401(k) withdrawal. Since Roth contributions are made with after-tax dollars, you do not need to pay taxes on that portion again.

To calculate the portion of the withdrawal attributable to earnings, simply multiply the withdrawal amount by the ratio of total account earnings to account balance. If your account balance is $10,000, comprised of $9,000 in contributions and $1,000 in earnings, then your earnings ratio is $1,000 / $10,000, or 0.10. Therefore, a $4,000 withdrawal would include $400 in taxable earnings, which would need to be included in the gross annual income reported to the IRS on your taxes.

Rolling Over Funds in a Roth 410(k)

You can also avoid taxation on your earnings if your withdrawal is for the purposes of a rollover. If the funds are simply being moved into another retirement plan or into a spouse's plan via direct rollover, no additional taxes are incurred. If the rollover is not direct, meaning the funds are distributed to the account holder rather than from one institution to another, the funds must be deposited in another Roth 401(k) or IRA account within 60 days to avoid taxation.

In addition, an indirect rollover means that the portion of the distribution attributable to contributions cannot be transferred to another Roth 401(k) but can be transferred into a Roth IRA. The earnings portion of the distribution can be deposited into either type of account.

Borrowing Money from Your Roth 401(k)

Though there really is not a no-strings-attached way to withdraw tax-free money from your Roth 401(k) before age 59 1/2, taking a loan from your account can be a quick way to use the funds for current needs without diminishing your retirement savings. Many 401(k) plans, Roth or traditional, allow for the account holder to take a loan of up to 50 percent of the account balance up to $50,000.

Loans must be repaid within five years in generally equal payments made at least quarterly. The benefit is that you are borrowing money from yourself, and all payments and interest charged go directly back into your retirement account. Failure to repay the loan as stipulated, however, may result in it being considered a taxable distribution.

The Bottom Line

If you're in the process of researching how retirement accounts work but have not yet figured out what some of the leading places to create these accounts are, you can take a look at the best brokers for IRAs and best brokers for Roth IRAs.

Advisor Insight

Scott Bishop, CPA, PFS, CFP®
STA Wealth Management, LLC, Houston, TX

Assuming that you are no longer working for the company, your account statements should indicate whether you have the five years completed, but if not, you can find out from the plan administrator. The first year the Roth 401(k) became available was 2006, and if your first contribution was before 2014, your plan is now fully qualified tax-free upon distribution.

If you are still employed and eligible for withdrawal, it’s best to roll it over to a Roth IRA. If your trades generate gains in the taxable account, you will owe annual taxes on the gains, but if you trade in a Roth IRA, all gains are tax-deferred until you have had a Roth IRA for five years. Even if you do not have a Roth IRA right now, the rollover of a qualified Roth 401(k) will be treated as regular Roth IRA contributions.