Is a Rollover IRA a Good Idea?

In addition to an increase in rollovers, there has been an increase in the mistakes people make when transferring retirement funds as well, reports The Wall Street Journal in a recent article, “The Biggest Mistake People Make With IRA Rollovers.” These are expensive mistakes, potentially adding up to tens of thousands of dollars in taxes and penalties.

Done properly, rolling the funds from a 401(k) to a traditional IRA offers flexibility and control, minus paying taxes immediately. Depending on the IRA custodian, the owner may choose from different investment options, from stocks and bonds to mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, certificates of deposits or annuities. A company plan may limit you to a half-dozen or so choices. However, before you make a move, be aware of these key mistakes:

Taking a lump-sum distribution of the 401(k) funds instead of moving them directly to the IRA custodian. The clock starts ticking when you do what’s called an “indirect rollover.” Miss the 60-day deadline and the amount is considered a distribution, included as gross income and taxable. If you’re younger than 59½, you might also get hit with a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

There is an exception: if you are an employee with highly appreciated stock of the company that you are leaving in your 401(k), it’s considered a “Net Unrealized Appreciation,” or NUA. In this case, you may take the lump-sum distribution and pay taxes at the ordinary income-tax rate, but only on the cost basis, or the adjusted original value, of the stock. The difference between the cost basis and the current market value is the NUA, and you can defer the tax on the difference until you sell the stock.

Not realizing when you do an indirect rollover, your workplace plan administrator will usually withhold 20% of your account and send it to the IRS as pre-payment of federal-income tax on the distribution. This will happen even if your plan is to immediately put the money into an IRA. If you want to contribute the same amount that was in your 401(k) to your IRA, you’ll need to provide funds from other sources. Note that if too much tax was withheld, you’ll get a refund from the IRS in April.

Rolling over funds from a 401(k) to an IRA before taking a Required Minimum Distribution or RMD. If you’re required to take an RMD for the year that you are receiving the distribution (age 72 and over), neglecting this point will result in an excess contribution, which could be subject to a 6% penalty.

Rolling funds from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA and neglecting to pay taxes immediately. If you move money from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, it’s a conversion and taxes are due when you make the transfer. However, if you have some after-tax dollars left in the 401(k), you can make a tax-free distribution of those funds to a Roth IRA. Remember funds must remain in a Roth IRA for at least five years, before withdrawing any earnings or they’ll be subject to taxes and possibly penalties.

Not knowing the limits when moving funds from one IRA to another, if you do a 60-day rollover. The general rule is this: you are allowed to do only one distribution from an IRA to another IRA within a 12-month period. Make more than one distribution and it’s considered taxable income. Tack on a 10% penalty, if you’re under 59½.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 1, 2021) “The Biggest Mistake People Make With IRA Rollovers”

What Do I Need to Do to Calculate and Correct an Excess IRA Contribution?

It would be super if you could put all your money into a Roth and enjoy tax-free growth and withdrawals. However, Uncle Sam restricts the amount you can contribute annually, and eligibility is based on your income. However, if you make too much money, you might be able to use a work-around called a backdoor Roth.

Investopedia’s January article entitled “How to Calculate (and Fix) Excess IRA Contributions” says there’s also a contribution limit for traditional IRAs. However, these income limits concern deducting contributions on your taxes. If you violate a rule and make an ineligible, or excess, contribution, you’re looking at a 6% penalty on the amount each year, until you correct the mistake. However, note that Roth IRAs have an extra restriction: whether you can contribute up to the limit—or anything at all—depends on your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). If you contributed to a Roth when you made too much to qualify—or if you contributed more than you’re allowed to either IRA—you’ve made an excess contribution, which is subject to a 6% tax penalty.

The $6,000 (or $7,000) maximum is the combined total that you’re allowed to contribute to all your IRAs. Therefore, if you have a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, your total contribution to those two accounts must be $6,000 (or $7,000). The amount you contribute can’t be more than your earned income for the year. If your earned income is $4,000, that’s the maximum you can contribute to an IRA.

The penalty of 6% of the excess amount must be paid when you file your income tax return. If you fail to fix the mistake, you’ll owe the penalty each year the excess remains in your account. If you’re not eligible to take a qualified distribution from your IRA to fix the mistake, you’ll pay an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty on earnings (interest). The IRS has a specific formula to calculate earnings (or losses) attributable to an excess contribution. There are several ways to fix an excess contribution to an IRA:

Withdraw the excess contribution and earnings. You can avoid the 6% penalty, if you withdraw the extra contribution and any earnings before your tax deadline. You are required to declare the earnings as income on your taxes. You may also owe a 10% tax for early withdrawal on the earnings, if you’re younger than 59½.

File an amended tax return (if you’ve already filed). If you remove the excess contribution and earnings and file an amended return by the October extension deadline, you can also avoid the 6% penalty.

Apply the excess to next year’s contribution. You’ll still owe the 6% tax this year, but you’ll at least stop paying once you apply the excess.

Withdraw the excess next year. If you don’t do one of the other options, you can withdraw the excess funds by Dec. 31 of the next year. You can leave the earnings, but you must remove the entire excess contribution to avoid that 6% penalty for the following year.

In addition to the formula, you must correct the excess from the same IRA. Therefore, if you have multiple IRAs, you can’t choose the IRA you want to “fix.” The last contribution is also an excess contribution. If you made multiple contributions to an IRA, the last is considered the excess contribution. Finally, you are able to distribute the entire balance to correct the excess. If the excess amount is the only contribution you made to the IRA—and no other contributions, distributions, transfers, or recharacterizations occurred in the IRA—you can fix the excess, by simply distributing the entire IRA balance by the applicable deadline.

Most people who make ineligible contributions to an IRA do so by accident, and you could contribute too much if you meet the following criteria:

  • You make more money, and it moves you up to an income eligibility range
  • You overlook a contribution you made earlier in the year; or
  • You contributed more than your earned income for the year.

In a good faith attempt to fund your retirement accounts, you could make an excess contribution. The IRS has considered that this may occur. The agency provides guidelines to help you correct the error.

Reference: Investopedia (Jan.  19, 2020) “How to Calculate (and Fix) Excess IRA Contributions”