The Roth IRA 5-Year Rule: What to Know

Follow these five-year rules that apply to withdrawals, conversions and beneficiaries to avoid being subject to penalties.
Anna-Louise Jackson
By Anna-Louise Jackson 
Updated
Edited by Robert Beaupre Reviewed by Michael Randall
roth-ira-5-year-rules

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Roth IRAs offer significant tax advantages — and, unsurprisingly, there are strings attached. You’ll need to abide by IRS rules for these investment retirement accounts to avoid the sticker shock of penalties or taxes when you take distributions.

Below, we cover three of the rules for Roth IRA withdrawals, all of which have a five-year stipulation to avoid penalties. One applies to the general waiting period before you can take withdrawals of investment earnings (also known as distributions), another applies to Roth conversions, and the final pertains to beneficiaries.

Here’s what you need to know about each.

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Roth IRA five-year rule for withdrawals

The five-year rule for Roth IRA withdrawals of investment earnings requires that you hold your account for at least five years before you can tap those earnings without incurring a penalty. It’s important to note this rule applies specifically to investment earnings. The contributions you’ve made can be withdrawn at any time because you’ve already paid taxes on this money.

This rule determines whether a withdrawal of earnings will be considered tax-free by the IRS. If it’s not, you may be liable to pay taxes and a 10% penalty on the earnings portion of your distribution. (Here’s what you need to know if you’re considering an early withdrawal.)

The five-year period begins on Jan. 1 of the year you made your first contribution to any Roth IRA. Once you clear that five-year period, for withdrawals of earnings to qualify as tax-free, they must also be done after age 59½ or because you qualify for certain exceptions. If you've had your Roth for less than five years, there are also exceptions that can get you off the hook for the 10% penalty on withdrawn earnings — but not all income taxes.

Exceptions to the 10% penalty

Here's a roundup of the conditions that may let you bypass the 10% penalty or both the 10% penalty and the income taxes you would otherwise owe on withdrawn earnings:

Early distributions of earnings for these reasons are considered qualified: not subject to taxes or the 10% penalty

Early distributions of earnings for these reasons are considered exceptions: taxable as income, but not subject to the 10% penalty

You've held a Roth IRA for at least five years AND you are taking the distribution in one of the following circumstances:

  • You're age 59 1/2 or older.

  • You're permanently and totally disabled.

  • As a beneficiary of the Roth IRA after death of the account owner.

  • To use up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

  • You're taking the distribution for qualified education expenses.

  • You’re withdrawing up to $5,000 in the year after the birth or adoption of your child.

  • You are taking the distribution for unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income for the year or for health insurance premiums while you are unemployed.

  • You are taking qualified reservist distributions (for members of the military reserve called to active duty).

  • You are taking a series of substantially equal distributions.

  • The distribution is due to an IRS levy.

  • You have not held a Roth IRA for at least five years, but you are 59 1/2 or older, permanently and totally disabled, inherited the Roth IRA after death of the account owner or using up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

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Five-year rule for Roth IRA conversions

Similar to the rule above, withdrawals of money from the conversion of a traditional IRA or 401(k) to a Roth IRA are subject to a five-year waiting period to avoid a penalty.

For this rule, the five-year period begins the first day of the tax year in which you converted money from a traditional IRA (or did a rollover from a qualified retirement plan) to your Roth IRA. For example, if you do a conversion on May 1, 2022, the rule for that conversion actually begins on January 1, 2022. Each conversion or rollover you make is subject to a separate five-year waiting period.

If you don’t wait the requisite five-year period from conversion to withdrawal, you may have to pay a 10% penalty, along with any income taxes owed. The same exceptions apply to the five-year rule of withdrawals of conversions as any other type of early distributions — see chart above for examples).

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Five-year rule for Roth IRA beneficiaries

The final five-year rule applies to distributions to beneficiaries of a deceased IRA holder. As noted by the other two rules, death is an exception to penalties for early withdrawals — but to avoid ordinary taxes, beneficiaries still must abide by the two prior rules pertaining to the waiting period for making withdrawals of investment earnings or converted amounts.

As a result, if you find yourself to be the beneficiary of a Roth IRA, double-check the timing of initial contributions, conversions or rollovers. Distributions of earnings and rollovers won’t necessarily qualify as tax-free if any of the five-year rules prohibit it, even though the original owner of the Roth IRA has died. Those amounts will be included in the beneficiary’s gross income and therefore subject to income taxes, just as if the money had gone to the original IRA owner instead.

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