Hey Joel! Answers From a Former Practicing ERISA Attorney

Hey Joel,

When does the five-year clock start for Roth withdrawals?
-Tick Tock in Tennessee

Dear Tick Tock,

For most investors, it’s important to know that there is a five-year waiting period for tax-free withdrawals of earnings, and it is applied differently, depending on if you made Roth IRA contributions, converted a traditional IRA to a Roth, rolled over Roth 401(k) assets or inherited the Roth account.

The five-year clock starts with your first contribution to any Roth IRA – not necessarily the one from which you are withdrawing funds. The clock rule also applies to conversions from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. (Rollovers from one Roth IRA to another do not reset the five-year clock.) Once you satisfy the five-year requirement for a single Roth IRA, you’re done. Any subsequent Roth IRA is considered held for five years.

If you have a Roth 401(k), those have their own clock (Treasury Regulation 1.402A-1, Q&A-4(b)). If you open a new 401(k) with a new employer, that Roth 401(k) has its own clock. If you move an older 401(k) to a newer 401(k) with a new employer, the old clock is the one that counts.

In other words, I would keep the Roth money from a 401(k) plan separate from other ROTH IRAs to avoid issues over whether the five-year clock has expired.

The Count,

Joel Shapiro JD, LLM

Former Practicing ERISA Attorney