How to Convert a Traditional 401(k) to a Roth IRA

By Pam O’Brien · May 18, 2024 · 10 minute read

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How to Convert a Traditional 401(k) to a Roth IRA

When moving on to a new job, it may be difficult to keep track of the 401(k) left behind at your last job.

What’s more, administrative fees on the account that may have been previously covered by your employer might now shift to you—making it more expensive to maintain the 401(k) account once you’ve left the company. This may leave you wondering, can you roll over a 401(k) to a Roth IRA?

You can! In fact, one of the rollover options for a 401(k) is to convert it to a Roth IRA. For some people, especially those at a certain salary level, this may be an attractive option.

Read on to learn more about rolling over a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, and explore the benefits, restrictions, and ways to execute a rollover, so that you can decide if that’s the right financial move for you.

Key Points

•   Rolling over a 401(k) to a Roth IRA involves converting pre-tax retirement savings to an account funded with after-tax dollars.

•   Taxes must be paid at the time of conversion based on current income rates.

•   There are no limits on the amount that can be transferred, unlike annual contribution limits.

•   The rollover can be direct, transferring funds between providers, or indirect, requiring a 60-day deposit window to avoid penalties.

•   Converting to a Roth IRA can be advantageous for those expecting to be in a higher tax bracket during retirement.

What Happens When You Convert a 401(k) to a Roth IRA?

Converting, or rolling over, your 401(k) to a Roth IRA means taking your money out of one retirement fund and placing it into a new one.

When you convert your 401(k) to a Roth IRA this is known as a Roth IRA conversion. However, because of some important differences between a traditional 401(k) and a Roth IRA, you will owe taxes when you make this kind of rollover.

The reason: A traditional 401(k) is funded with pre-tax dollars. You don’t pay taxes on the money when you contribute it. Instead, you pay taxes on the funds when you withdraw them in retirement. A Roth IRA, on the other hand, is funded with after-tax dollars. You pay taxes on the contributions in the year you make them, and your withdrawals in retirement are generally tax free.

Because with a 401(k) you haven’t yet paid taxes on the money in your account, when you roll it over to a Roth IRA, you’ll owe taxes on the money at that time. The money will be taxed at your ordinary income rate, depending on what tax bracket you’re in. For the 2023 and 2024 tax years, the income tax brackets range from 10% to 37%.

💡 Quick Tip: How much does it cost to set up an IRA? Often there are no fees to open an IRA account, but you typically pay investment costs for the securities in your portfolio.

Steps to Converting a 401(k) to a Roth IRA

These are the actions you’ll need to take to convert your 401(k) retirement plan to a Roth IRA.

1. Open a new Roth IRA account.

There are multiple ways to open an IRA, including through online banks and brokers. Choose the method you prefer.

2. Decide whether you want the rollover to be a direct transfer or indirect transfer.

With a direct transfer, you will fill out paperwork to transfer funds from your old 401(k) account into a Roth IRA. The money will get transferred from one account to another, with no further involvement from you.

With an indirect transfer, you cash out the 401(k) account with the intention of immediately reinvesting it yourself into another retirement fund. To make sure you actually do transfer the money into another retirement account, the government requires your account custodian to withhold a mandatory 20% tax — which you’ll get back in the form of a tax exemption when you file taxes.

The caveat: You will have to make up the 20% out of pocket and deposit the full amount into your new retirement account within 60 days. If you retain any funds from the rollover, they may be subject to an additional 10% penalty for early withdrawal.

3. Contact the company that currently holds your current 401(k) and request a transfer.

Tell them the type of transfer you want to make, direct or indirect. They will then send you the necessary forms to fill out.

4. Keep an eye out to make sure the transfer happens.

You’ll likely get an alert when the money is transferred, but check your new Roth IRA account to see that your funds land there safely. At that point, you can decide how you want to invest the money in your new IRA to start saving for retirement.

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Considerations Before Rolling a 401(k) to a Roth IRA

There are a few rules to consider when rolling over 401(k) assets to a Roth IRA.

Roth IRA Contribution Limits

Contribution limits for Roth IRAs and traditional IRAs are much lower than they are for 401(k)s. For tax year 2023, you can contribute up to $6,500 in a Roth or traditional IRA. Those aged 50 and up can contribute up to $7,500, which includes $1,000 of catch-up contributions. For tax year 2024, individuals can contribute up to $7,000 in a Roth IRA, and those 50 and over can contribute up to $8,000.

By comparison, contribution limits for a 401(k) are $22,500 in 2023, and $23,000 in 2024 for those under age 50. Those aged 50 and over can make an additional $7,500 in catch-up contributions to a 401(k) in 2023 and 2024.

Income Limits for Roth IRA Eligibility

Unlike traditional IRAs, which anyone can contribute to, Roth IRAs have an income cap on eligibility. These income limits are adjusted each year to account for inflation. However, when you are rolling a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, the income limits do not apply. So if you are a high earner, a conversion from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA could be a good option for you.

What are those income caps? For tax year 2023, single filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $138,000 can contribute the full amount to a Roth IRA. However, those with a MAGI of $138,000 to $153,000 can only make a partial contribution to a Roth, while those who make more than $153,000 cannot contribute at all.

For individuals married filing jointly for tax year 2023, those with a MAGI of less than $218,000 can contribute the full amount, while those whose MAGI is $218,000 to $228,000 may contribute a partial amount, and those making more than $228,000 can’t contribute to a Roth IRA.

For tax year 2024, single filers with a MAGI below $146,000 can contribute the full amount to a Roth IRA, those with a MAGI between $146,000 and $161,000 can make a partial contribution, and those making more than $161,000 can’t contribute.

For individuals married filing jointly for tax year 2024, those with a MAGI under $230,000 can contribute the full amount, those whose MAGI is $230,000 to $240,000 can contribute a partial amount, and those making more than $240,000 can’t contribute to a Roth IRA.

As you can see, for high earners, the fact that these income limits do not apply to a 401(k) to Roth conversion, could be a potential reason to consider this type of rollover.

Rollover Amount Will be Taxed

You will have to pay taxes on your IRA rollover. Since your 401(k) account was funded with pre-tax dollars and a Roth IRA is funded with post-tax dollars, you’ll need to pay income tax on the 401(k) amount being rolled over in the same tax year in which your rollover takes place.

A Roth IRA is Subject to the Five-Year Rule

Once you transfer money into your new Roth IRA, it pays to keep it there for a while. If you withdraw any earnings that have been in the account for less than five years, you will likely be required to pay income tax and an additional 10% penalty. This is known as the five-year rule. After five years, any earnings withdrawn through a non-qualified distribution is subject to income tax only, with no penalties.

Penalties for Early Withdrawals

In addition to the five-year rule, non-qualified distributions or withdrawals from a Roth IRA — meaning those made before you reach age 59 ½ — can result in penalties and taxes. While there are certain exceptions that may apply, including having a permanent disability or using the funds to buy or build a first home, it’s wise to think twice and research any potential consequences before withdrawing money early from a Roth IRA.

💡 Quick Tip: Before opening an investment account, know your investment objectives, time horizon, and risk tolerance. These fundamentals will help keep your strategy on track and with the aim of meeting your goals.

Should You Convert Your 401(k) to a Roth IRA ?

Converting a 401(k) to a Roth IRA may be beneficial if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket when you retire since withdrawals from the account in retirement are tax-free. And if you are a high earner, a 401(k) rollover to a Roth IRA may give you the opportunity to participate in a Roth IRA that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Another advantage of a Roth IRA is that you can withdraw the money you contributed (but not the earnings) at any time without paying taxes or penalties. And unlike 401(k)s, there are no required minimum distributions (RMDs) with a Roth IRA. Finally, IRAs generally offer more investment options than many 401(k) plans do.

Can You Reduce the Tax Impact?

There are some potential ways to reduce the tax impact of converting a 401(k) to a Roth IRA. For instance, rather than making one big conversion, you could consider making smaller conversion amounts each year, which may help reduce your tax bill.

Another way to possibly lower the tax impact is if you have post-tax money in your 401(k). This might be the case if you contributed more than the maximum deductible amount allowed to your 401(k), for instance. You may be able to avoid paying taxes currently by rolling over the after-tax funds in your 401(k) to a Roth IRA, and the rest of the pre-tax money in the 401(k) to a traditional IRA.

In general it’s wise to consult a tax professional to see what the best strategy is for you and your specific situation.

The Takeaway

One way to handle a 401(k) account from a previous employer is by rolling it over into a Roth IRA. For some individuals, it might be the only way to take advantage of a Roth IRA, which typically has an income limit. With a Roth IRA, account holders can contribute post-tax dollars now, and enjoy tax-free withdrawals in retirement.

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Can I roll over my 401(k) to an existing Roth IRA?

Yes, you can roll over a 401(k) to an existing Roth IRA — or to a new Roth IRA.

Can I roll my 401(k) into a Roth IRA without penalty?

You can roll over 401(k) to a Roth IRA without penalty as long as you follow the 60-day rule if you’re doing an indirect rollover. You must deposit the funds into a Roth IRA within 60 days to avoid a penalty.

How much does it cost to roll over 401k to Roth IRA?

Typically there is no charge to roll over a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, unless you are charged processing fees by the custodian of your old 401(k) plan or the new Roth IRA. However, you will owe taxes on the money you roll over from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA. The money will be taxed at your ordinary income tax rate.

Is there a time limit when rolling over a 401(k) to a Roth IRA?

If you do an indirect rollover, in which you cash out the money from your 401(k), you have 60 days to deposit the funds into a Roth IRA in order to avoid being charged a penalty.

Is there a limit on rollover amounts to a Roth IRA?

No, there is no limit to the amount you can roll over to a Roth IRA. The standard annual contribution limits to a Roth IRA do not apply to a rollover.

How do you report a 401(k) rollover to a Roth IRA?

You will need to report a 401(k) rollover on your taxes. Your 401(k) plan administrator will send you a form 1099-R with the distribution amount. You typically report the distribution amount on IRS form 1040 when filing your taxes. You can consult a tax professional with any questions you might have.

Can you roll over partial 401(k) funds to Roth IRA?

You can typically roll over partial 401(k) funds as long as your plan allows it. Check with your plan’s administrator.

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