What is a rollover IRA?
A rollover IRA is a way to transfer money from a 401(k) or other retirement account in an individual retirement account (IRA). One major benefit of a rollover IRA is that it keeps your retirement dollars safe from taxes when the process is done correctly.
How to do an IRA rollover
If you have an existing IRA, you can roll your balance into the account you have (this may make it difficult to roll your money back to a 401(k) later; consider opening a new account if that's a possibility for you).
If you don’t have an existing IRA, you’ll need to make two decisions up front: which type of IRA you want and where to open that account.
1. Choose an account type
Traditional IRAs can net you a tax deduction on contributions in the year they are made, but withdrawals in retirement are taxed. If you rollover a 401(k) into this account, you won't pay any taxes on the rolled-over amount until retirement.
Roth IRAs don’t offer an immediate tax deduction. Rolling to a Roth means you’ll have to pay taxes on the rolled amount, unless you’re rolling over a Roth 401(k). The upside of Roths is that withdrawals in retirement are tax-free after age 59½.
Here are three things to consider:
If you want to keep things simple and preserve the tax treatment of your 401(k), a traditional IRA is an easy choice.
Rolling to a Roth IRA may be a good option if you wish to minimize your tax bill in retirement. The caveat here is that you will likely face a big tax bill today if you go with a Roth — unless your old account was a Roth 401(k).
If you need to use cash from the rollover to foot the tax bill today, a Roth IRA option is likely a bad choice, as you'll open yourself up to even more tax complications. Stick with a traditional IRA when that's the case.
2. Choose a provider
Your choice of IRA provider is not the biggest driver of your portfolio’s growth — that's where your investments come in. However, selecting a provider is critical for keeping fees low and gaining access to the right investments and resources you need to manage your savings.
When deciding where to open a rollover IRA, the choice often boils down to two options: an online broker or a robo-advisor.
An online broker is a good fit for you if you want to manage your investments yourself. Look for a provider that charges no account fees, offers a wide selection of low-cost investments and has a reputation for good customer service.
A robo-advisor makes sense if you want someone to manage your money. A robo-advisor will choose investments and rebalance your portfolio over time — for a fraction of the cost of a human advisor. Check out our explainer on what is a robo-advisor to see if it’s the right choice for you.
Here are some of our top picks:
» Check out our complete list of top IRA account providers
What are the benefits of a rollover IRA?
If you’re leaving a job, you usually have three choices:
Leave it be. If your ex-employer lets you, you can leave the plan where it is. This isn’t ideal: You’ll no longer have an HR team at your disposal to help you with questions, and you may be charged higher 401(k) fees as an ex-employee.
Roll it over. This is the best choice for many people: You can roll your money into either your current employer’s retirement plan or into an IRA. In many cases, the IRA is the destination of choice. There, you’ll have a wide variety of investment options and low fees, particularly compared with a 401(k), which can have a short list of investment options and high administrative fees.
Cash out. This is almost certainly your worst option. Not only does cashing out sabotage your retirement, but it comes with some brutal penalties and taxes levied by the IRS. You’ll pay a 10% early withdrawal fee, plus ordinary income taxes on the amount distributed. That means you might hand over up to 40% of that money right off the top.
How to do an IRA rollover the right way
When you know what type of account you want and where you want to open it, you can start the rollover process. Virtually all IRA providers will help you do this — many have “rollover specialists” on staff — but the basics are simple:
Contact your former employer’s plan administrator, complete a few forms, and ask it to send a check for your account balance to your new account provider.
The new account provider should give you pretty explicit instructions for how the check should be made out, what information to include — like your new IRA account number — and where it should be sent.
Some providers allow you to wire the funds instead.
The key to all of the above is the phrase “direct rollover.” That means the money never touches your hands. You can also opt for an indirect rollover, which essentially means you’re withdrawing the money and moving it to the IRA provider yourself, a process that needs to be completed within 60 days. But this process exposes you to further tax complexities, which is why we generally recommend a direct rollover.
Taxes on rollover IRAs
If you do a direct rollover, you’re good to go. No taxes to consider until you start withdrawing money in retirement.
If you do an indirect rollover — that is, you receive a check made out to you — then mind these rules so you don’t end up owing a big tax bill:
1. The 60-day rule
With an indirect rollover, you have 60 days from the date you receive the distribution to get that money into an IRA. If you miss that deadline, the IRS will likely deem this an early withdrawal, which means that in addition to income tax, you could owe a 10% early withdrawal penalty.
2. Taxes are withheld
With an indirect rollover from a workplace retirement plan, usually the check you receive will be for the amount of your 401(k) account minus 20% of the account balance. That 20% is withheld by the plan administrator to pay taxes on your distribution.
But if you’re planning to roll your money into an IRA, you can avoid paying taxes now by taking steps to make sure you get that money back from the IRS. (The exception to this is if you want to open a Roth IRA, which will require taxes paid on the distribution, unless your money was in a Roth 401(k).)
To get your money back, you must deposit into your IRA the complete account balance — including whatever was withheld for taxes.
For example, say your total 401(k) account balance was $20,000 and your former employer sends you a check for $16,000 (that’s the full account minus 20%). Assuming you’re not planning to go the Roth route, you'd need to come up with $4,000 so that you can deposit the full $20,000 into your IRA.
At tax time, the IRS will see you rolled over the entire retirement account and will refund you the amount that was withheld in taxes.
You also avoid a 10% penalty, because if you only put $16,000 into the IRA, the IRS will say you’ve taken an early withdrawal of $4,000. You’ll owe the early withdrawal penalty on the $4,000 — and, believe it or not, income tax, too.
How to choose your rollover IRA investments
Once the money lands in your new IRA account, you can get down to the fun part: selecting your investments. If this is your first IRA, you’ll probably be surprised at the vast number of investments on your doorstep, especially compared with the measly selection of funds in your 401(k).
For most people, the best choice is to select a few low-cost index mutual funds or ETFs, based on the asset allocation — meaning the way you divide your money among stocks, bonds and cash — that makes sense for your age and risk tolerance.
If you’re not up for that, there are hands-off options: If you were invested in a target-date fund in your 401(k), you can find a similar (and perhaps less expensive) fund for your IRA at a broker.
If you opened your new account at a robo-advisor, that company’s computer algorithms will take care of selecting and rebalancing your investments based on questions you answer about your timeline and stomach for risk. That’s not to say you can turn a blind eye — we’d never recommend that — but there’s something to be said for turning over the bulk of the dirty work to someone else.
For more details on choosing your own investments, see our guide on how to invest in your IRA.