Rollover IRA vs Traditional IRA: What’s the Difference?

By Kate Ashford · August 02, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Rollover IRA vs Traditional IRA: What’s the Difference?

If you’re leaving a job, you may hear the term “rollover IRA.” But exactly what is a rollover IRA? Employees have the option of moving their retirement savings from their employer-sponsored 401(k) plan to an individual retirement account, or IRA, at another financial institution when they leave a job. This IRA, where they transfer their 401(k) savings to, is called a rollover IRA. If the 401(k) plan was not a Roth 401(k), you’ll likely want to open what’s called a traditional IRA.

In this scenario, a rollover IRA is also a traditional IRA. But they aren’t always the same. You can have a traditional IRA that is not a rollover IRA. Read on for the differences worth noting between a rollover IRA and a traditional IRA.

Key Points

•   A rollover IRA is an individual retirement account created with funds rolled over from a qualified retirement plan, like a 401(k), usually when someone leaves a job.

•   A traditional IRA is funded by direct contributions by the account holder, and contributions are tax-deductible up to a cap and subject to eligibility limitations.

•   Directing rollover funds from an employer-sponsored plan to a traditional IRA that holds your direct contributions is called commingling funds, which you may not want to do, especially if you want to transfer the rollover funds to a new employer’s plan.

•   Withdrawals from either type of IRA before age 59.5 are subject to both income taxes and an early withdrawal penalty, except for certain eligible expenses.

•   The IRS requires owners of both types of IRAs to start making withdrawals at age 73 (for people born in 1951 or later); these withdrawals are also called required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Is There a Difference Between a Rollover IRA and a Traditional IRA?

When it comes to a rollover IRA vs. traditional IRA, the only real difference is that the money in a rollover IRA was rolled over from an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Otherwise, the accounts share the same tax rules on withdrawals, required minimum distributions, and conversions to Roth IRAs.

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What Is a Rollover IRA?

A rollover IRA is an individual retirement account created with money that’s being rolled over from a qualified retirement plan. Generally, rollover IRAs happen when someone leaves a job with an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), and they roll the assets from that plan into a rollover IRA.

In a rollover IRA, like a traditional IRA, your savings grow tax-free until you withdraw the money in retirement. There are several advantages to rolling your employer-sponsored retirement plan into an IRA, vs. into a 401(k) with a new employer:

•   IRAs may charge lower fees than 401(k) providers.

•   IRAs may offer more investment options than an employer-sponsored retirement account.

•   You may be able to consolidate several retirement accounts into one rollover IRA, simplifying management of your investments.

•   IRAs offer the ability to withdraw money early for certain eligible expenses, such as purchasing your first home or paying for higher education. In these cases, while you’ll pay income taxes on the money you withdraw, you won’t owe any early withdrawal penalty.

There are also some rollover IRA rules that may feel like disadvantages to putting your money into an IRA instead of leaving it in an employer-sponsored plan:

•   While you can borrow money from your 401(k) and pay it back over time, you cannot take a loan from an IRA account.

•   Certain investments that were offered in your 401(k) plan may not be available in the IRA account.

•   There may be negative tax implications to rolling over company stock.

•   An IRA requires that you start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from the account at age 73, even if you’re still working, whereas you may be able to delay your RMDs from an employer-sponsored account if you’re still working.

•   The money in an employer plan is protected from creditors and judgments, whereas the money in an IRA may not be, depending on your state.

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What Is a Traditional IRA?

Now that you know the answer to the question of what is a rollover IRA?, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with a traditional IRA. To understand the difference between a rollover IRA vs. traditional IRA, it helps to know some IRA basics.

From the moment you open a traditional IRA, your contributions to the account are typically tax deductible, so your savings will grow tax-free until you make withdrawals in retirement.

This is advantageous to some retirees: Upon retirement, it’s likely one might be in a lower income tax bracket than when they were employed. Given that, the money they withdraw will be taxed at a lower rate than it would have when they contributed.

A Side-by-Side Comparison of Rollover IRA vs Traditional IRA

  Rollover IRA Traditional IRA
Source of contributions Created by “rolling over” money from another account, most typically an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as 401(k) or 403(b). For the rollover amount, annual contribution limits do not apply. Created by regular contributions to the account, not in excess of the annual contribution limit, although rolled-over money can also be contributed to a traditional IRA.
Contribution limits There is no limit on the funds you roll over from another account. If you’re contributing outside of a rollover, the limit is $6,500 for tax year 2023, plus an additional $1,000 if you’re 50 or older. Up to $6,500 for tax year 2023, plus an additional $1,000 if you’re 50 or older.
Withdrawal rules Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to both income taxes and an early withdrawal penalty (with certain exceptions , like for higher education expenses or the purchase of a first home). Withdrawals before age 59 ½ are subject to both income taxes and an early withdrawal penalty (with certain exceptions , like for higher education expenses or the purchase of a first home).
Required minimum distributions (RMDs) You’re required to withdraw a certain amount of money from this account each year once you reach age 73 (thanks to the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022). You’re required to withdraw a certain amount of money from this account each year once you reach age 73 (again, thanks to the SECURE 2.0 Act).
Taxes Since contributions are from a pre-tax account, all withdrawals from this account in retirement will be taxed at ordinary income rates. If contributions are tax deductible, all withdrawals from this account in retirement will be taxed at ordinary income rates. (If contributions were non-deductible, you’ll pay taxes on only the earnings in retirement.)
Convertible to a Roth IRA Yes Yes

Can You Contribute to a Rollover IRA?

By now you’re probably wondering, can I contribute to a rollover IRA?, and the answer is yes. You can make contributions to a rollover IRA, up to IRA contribution limits. For tax year 2023, individuals can contribute up to $6,500 (with an additional catch-up contribution of $1,000 if you’re 50 or older). If you do add money to your rollover IRA, however, you may not be able to roll the account into another employer’s retirement plan at a later date.

Can You Combine a Traditional IRA With a Rollover IRA?

A rollover IRA is essentially a traditional IRA that was created when money was rolled into it. Hence, you can combine two IRAs by having a direct transfer done from one account to another, or by rolling money from one IRA to the other IRA.

There’s one important aspect of the transfer or rollover process that will help prevent the money from counting as an early withdrawal or distribution to you—and that’s being timely with any transfers. With an indirect rollover, you typically have 60 days to deposit the money from the now-closed fund into the new one.

A few other key points to remember: As mentioned above, if you add non-rollover money to a rollover account, you may lose the ability to roll funds into a future employer’s retirement plan. Also keep in mind that there’s a limit of one rollover between IRAs in any 12-month period. This is strictly an IRA-to-IRA limit and does not apply to rollovers from a retirement plan to an IRA.

How to Open a Traditional or Rollover IRA Account

Opening a traditional IRA and a rollover IRA are identical processes — the only difference is the funding. Open a traditional or rollover IRA by doing the following:

•   Decide where to open your IRA. For instance, you can choose an online brokerage firm where you can choose your own investments, or you can select a robo-advisor that will offer automated suggestions based on your answers to a few basic investing questions. (There’s a small fee associated with most robo-advisors.)

•   Open an account. From the provider’s website, select the type of IRA you’d like to open — traditional or rollover, in this case — and provide a few pieces of personal information. You’ll likely need to supply your date of birth, Social Security number, and contact and employment information.

•   Fund the account. You can fund the account with a direct contribution via check or a transfer from your bank account, transferring money from another IRA, or rolling over the money from an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Contact your company plan administrator for information on how to do the latter.

The Takeaway

Both a rollover IRA and a traditional IRA allow investors to put money away for retirement in a tax-advantaged way, with very little difference between the two accounts.

One of the primary questions anyone considering a rollover IRA should consider is, will you keep contributing to it? If so, that would prevent you from rolling the rollover IRA back into an employer-sponsored retirement account in the future.

Whether it’s a rollover IRA you’ve created by rolling over an employer-sponsored retirement account or a traditional IRA you’ve opened with regular contributions, either account can play a key role in your retirement game plan.

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FAQ

Can you take money out of a rollover IRA?

You can, but if you take money from a rollover IRA (or a traditional IRA for that matter) before age 59½, those withdrawals are subject to income tax and an early withdrawal penalty of 10%. There are certain exceptions, however. If you withdraw the money for certain higher education expenses or to buy your first home, for example, the penalty may not apply.

Why would you rollover an IRA?

A rollover is when you move money between two different types of retirement plans. Typically, you might roll over an IRA if you leave a job with an employer-sponsored plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). You would roll the assets from that plan into a rollover IRA where your savings grow tax-free until you withdraw the money in retirement. You could instead choose to leave the money in your former employer’s plan, if that’s allowed, or roll it over into your new employer’s 401(k) or 403(b) plan, if they have one. However, a rollover IRA may offer you more investment choices and lower fees and costs than an employer-sponsored plan.

Can I roll over assets into my traditional IRA?

Yes, rolled over money can be contributed to a traditional IRA. It’s also worth noting that you can also combine a traditional IRA and a rollover IRA. You can do this with a direct transfer from one account to another, or by rolling money from one IRA to another, for instance. Just keep in mind that there is a limit of one rollover between IRAs in any 12-month period.

You may also be interested in:

Understanding IRA Rollover Rules: A Comprehensive Guide

IRA Transfer vs Rollover: What’s the Difference?

How to Roll Over Your 401(k)


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