What Is an IRA Rollover?

An individual retirement account rollover is a transfer of funds from a retirement account into a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. This can occur through a direct transfer or by a check, which the custodian of the distributing account writes to the account holder who then deposits it into another IRA account.

The purpose of a rollover is to maintain the tax-deferred status of those assets. Rollover IRAs are commonly used to hold 401(k), 403(b) or profit-sharing plan assets that are transferred from a former employer's sponsored retirement account or qualified plan. Rollover IRA funds can be moved to a new employer's retirement plan. Rollover IRAs do not cap the amount of money an employee can roll over and they permit account holders to invest in a wide array of assets such as stocks, bonds, ETFs and mutual funds.

IRA rollover accounts are typically provided by brokers - you can learn more about where to get these accounts with Investopedia's list of the best brokers for Roth IRAs

How an IRA Rollover Works

IRA rollovers can occur from a retirement account such as a 401(k) into an IRA, or as an IRA-to-IRA transfer. Most rollovers occur when people change jobs and wish to move 401(k) or 403(b) assets into an IRA, but some occur when account holders want to switch to an IRA with better benefits or investment choices.

To engineer a direct rollover, an account holder needs to ask his plan administrator to draft a check and send it directly to the IRA. In IRA-to-IRA transfers, the trustee from one plan sends the rollover amount to the trustee from the other plan. If an account holder receives a check from his existing IRA or retirement account, he or she can cash it and deposit the funds into the new IRA. However, he or she must complete the process within 60 days to avoid income taxes on the withdrawal. If he or she misses the 60-day deadline, the Internal Revenue Service treats the amount like an early distribution.

An indirect rollover allows for the transferring of assets from a tax-deferred 401(k) plan to a traditional IRA. With this method, the funds are given to the employee via check to be deposited into their own personal account. With an indirect rollover, it is up to the employee to redeposit the funds into the new IRA within the allotted 60 day period to avoid penalty.

Key Takeaways

  • An IRA rollover allows an individual to transfer assets from a qualified retirement into another IRA without penalty and while preserving the tax-deferred status of those investments.
  • Indirect rollovers may also occur where a former employee can transfer assets from a 401(k) or 403(b) account into a traditional IRA with no penalty or change in tax status.
  • IRA rollovers are subject to some strict rules including the transfer of funds be made between accounts within 60 days, and only one direct rollover per year.

Taxes for IRA Transfers

In direct transfers, the IRS withholds no taxes. Rather, the entire amount transfers directly from one account to another. However, if the account holder receives a check he or she deposits into the IRA, the IRS insists upon a withholding penalty. Custodians or trustees must withhold 10 percent on checks from IRA distributions and 20% on distributions from other retirement accounts, whether or not the funds are for a rollover. At tax time, this amount appears as tax paid by the tax filer.

However, if an account holder receives a distribution from a Roth IRA to rollover into a traditional IRA, he does not have to pay any taxes on the distribution or report it as income as the IRS does not tax distributions from Roth IRAs.

Rules on IRA-to-IRA Rollovers

Many IRAs allow only one rollover per year on an IRA-to-IRA transfer. The one-year calendar runs from the time the account holder made the distribution, and it does not apply to rollovers between traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs. Individuals who do not follow this rule may have to report extra IRA-to-IRA transfers as gross income in the tax year the rollover occurs.

The downside to this is that some banks may charge to issue a check to another bank of custodian when you are moving your IRA. This limit on IRA-to-IRA rollovers does not apply to eligible rollover distributions from an employer plan. Therefore, you can roll over more than one distribution from the same qualified plan, 403(b) or 457(b) account within a year. This one-year limit also does not apply to rollovers from Traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs (i.e. Roth conversions.)

After you receive the funds from your IRA, you also have a strict 60 days (and not two months) to complete the rollover to another IRA. If you do not complete the rollover within the time allowed—or do not receive a waiver or extension of the 60-day period from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)—the amount will be treated as ordinary income by the IRS. That means you must include the amount as income on your tax return, and any taxable amounts will be taxed at your current, ordinary income tax rate. Plus, if you were not 59.5 years old when the distribution occurred, you'll face a 10% penalty on the withdrawal. (For more, see: Exceptions to the 60-Day Retirement Account Rollover Rule.)