What Is a Rollover IRA?

A rollover Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is an account that allows for the transfer of assets from an old employer-sponsored retirement account to a traditional IRA. The purpose of a rollover IRA 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 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Employees can maintain the tax-deferred status of their retirement funds by rolling them over to an IRA when they leave a job.
  • IRA rollovers are reported on tax returns as non-taxable transactions. 
  • As per the IRS: "If you’re getting a distribution from a retirement plan, you can ask your plan administrator to make the payment directly to another retirement plan or to an IRA."

How a Rollover IRA Works

By moving retirement plan assets through a direct rollover, in which the former employer’s plan administrator moves the assets directly to the rollover IRA, employees avoid having 20% of their transferred assets withheld by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Alternatively, assets can be moved using an indirect rollover, in which the employee takes possession of the plan assets and then places them into another eligible retirement plan within 60 days.

With an indirect rollover, however, 20% of the account’s assets may be withheld and cannot be recovered until the employee files his or her annual tax return. If the movement of assets from a qualified employer-sponsored retirement plan to a rollover IRA is not handled correctly, the employee will face taxes. If he has not yet reached retirement age (59½), he will also pay early withdrawal penalties on those assets.

Rollover IRA funds can be moved to a new employer's retirement plan.

Most rollover IRAs are executed via direct (electronic) transfer or by check, though with the latter there may be a mandatory 20% withholding for federal taxes. In the case of a transfer by check, the rollover check must be deposited within 60 days. If it is deposited after 60 days, the funds will be taxed and penalties will be charged.

Special Considerations

An alternative to rolling distributions into a rollover IRA is for the employee to roll them directly into a new retirement account with a new employer. Other options include rolling assets into a traditional IRA, but this may have implications for transferring the funds to another employer’s retirement account in the future.

The rollover money can also be converted into a Roth IRA, but taxes will be due since qualified employer retirement plan contributions are made pre-tax and Roth IRAs can only hold post-tax contributions.