Roth IRA has a 5-Year Rule

Roth IRAs are popular for their flexibility and the simplicity of putting after-tax dollars in and not paying taxes on withdrawals during retirement. However, making the most of a Roth IRA requires paying attention to the details, according to a recent article “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?” from U.S. News & World Report.

More specifically, there are certain five-year rules that can undo all the good that comes from using a Roth, if you don’t know them. Avoid paying penalties or fees, by understanding how the Roth IRA rules work.

The Roth IRA five-year rule applies to investment earnings, and not to initial contributions. If you make withdrawals of investment earnings before the five-year time period, you’ll get hit with taxes and penalties, no matter how old you are. Many people think that once they turn 65 or 70, they can tap their Roth IRA whenever they want, but that’s not true.

Once you’ve opened and funded a Roth IRA, you’ll have to wait five years until you can start taking tax-free withdrawals of your investment earnings. The clock starts ticking on the date you open the account and make your very first contribution.

After five years, there are still certain requirements that must be met to take out earnings without a penalty. Before you can take out tax-free withdrawals, you will need to be at least 59½ or older.

That’s even if your first contribution was made the year you celebrated your 58th birthday. You’ll need to wait until age 63 before you may take qualified distributions from the account. The five-year rule applies, even if you opened the Roth IRA at age 70.

How is this time frame calculated? The IRS does it based on tax years. A tax year runs from January 1 to December 31. The deadline for contributions is the same as the deadline for filing taxes. Let’s say you funded a Roth IRA in April 2021 for the calendar year of 2020. The five-year rule begins on January 1, 2020. Apply the five-year rule, and you could begin taking withdrawals from the account on or after January 1, 2025.

What happens if you need to make withdrawals before the account hits that five-year mark? In that case, withdraw contributions to the account and not investment earnings.

If you’ve contributed money to a Roth IRA account, you can take that money out with no tax or penalty, no matter how old you are. However, make sure you meet all of the requirements. Remember that to avoid any taxes or penalties, you’ll need to leave the earnings in the account.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 10, 2021) “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?”

Using Retirement Funds in a Financial Crisis

For generations, the tax code has been a public policy tool, used to encourage people to save for retirement and what used to be called “old age.” However, the coronavirus pandemic has created financial emergencies for so many households that lawmakers have responded by making it easier to tap these accounts. The article “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes” from The Wall Street Journal asks if this is really a good idea.

This shift in thinking actually coincides with trends that began to emerge before the last recession. People were living and working longer. Unemployment and career changes later in life were becoming more commonplace, and fewer and fewer people devoted four decades to working for a single employer, before retiring with an employer-funded pension.

For those who have been affected by the economic downturns of the coronavirus, withdrawals up to $100,000 from retirement savings accounts are now allowed, with no early-withdrawal penalty. That includes IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) or employment-linked 401(k) plans. In addition, $100,000 may be borrowed from 401(k) plans.

Americans are not alone in this. Australia and Malaysia are also allowing citizens to take money from retirement accounts.

Lawmakers are hoping that putting money into pockets now may help households prevent foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies, with less of an impact on government spending. With trillions in retirement accounts in the U.S., these accounts are where legislators frequently look when resources are threatened.

However, there’s a tradeoff. If you take out money from accounts that have lost value because of the market’s volatility, those losses are not likely to be recouped. And if money is taken out and not replaced when the world returns to work, there will be less money during retirement. Not only will you miss out on the money you took out, but on the return, it might have made through years of tax-advantaged investments.

The danger is that if retirement accounts are widely seen as accessible and necessary now, a return to saving for retirement or the possibility of putting money back into these accounts when the economy returns to normal may not happen.

IRA and 401(k) accounts began to supplant pensions in the 1970s as a way to encourage people to save for retirement, by deferring income tax on money that was saved. By the end of 2019, IRAs and 401(k) types of accounts held about $20 trillion in the US.

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has estimated that even before the coronavirus, early withdrawals were reducing retirement accounts by a quarter over 30 years, taking into account the lost returns on savings that were no longer in the accounts. For many people, taking retirement funds now may be their only choice, but the risk to their financial future and retirement is very real.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020) “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes”