If you’re eligible to receive a taxable distribution from an employer-sponsored retirement plan [like a 401(k)], you can avoid current taxation by instructing your employer to roll the distribution directly over to another employer plan or IRA. With a direct rollover, you never actually receive the funds.
You can also avoid current taxation by actually receiving the distribution from the plan and then rolling it over to another employer plan or IRA within 60 days following receipt. This is called a “60-day” or “indirect” rollover.
But if you choose to receive the funds rather than making a direct rollover, your plan is required to withhold 20% of the taxable portion of your distribution (you’ll get credit for the amount withheld when you file your federal tax return). This is true even if you intend to make a 60-day rollover. You can still roll over the entire amount of your distribution, but you’ll need to make up the 20% that was withheld using other assets.
For example, if your taxable distribution from the plan is $10,000, the plan will withhold $2,000 and you’ll receive a check for $8,000. You can still roll $10,000 over to an IRA or another employer plan, but you’ll need to come up with that $2,000 from your other funds.
Similarly, if you’re eligible to receive a taxable distribution from an IRA, you can avoid current taxation by either transferring the funds directly to another IRA or to an employer plan that accepts rollovers (sometimes called a “trustee-to-trustee transfer”), or by taking the distribution and making a 60-day indirect rollover (20% withholding doesn’t apply to IRA distributions).
Under recently revised IRS rules, you can make only one tax-free, 60-day, rollover from any IRA you own (traditional or Roth) to any other IRA you own in any 12-month period. However, this limit does not apply to direct rollovers or trustee-to-trustee transfers. Because of the 20% withholding rule, the one-rollover-per-year rule, and the possibility of missing the 60-day deadline, in almost all cases you’re better off making a direct rollover to move your retirement plan funds from one account to another.