Q&A: Roth IRA penalties

Dear Liz: I read your column in which you talked about the Roth IRA and how withdrawals can be penalized if you’re younger than 59½ or the account is not 5 years old. But are there any exceptions? Can we withdraw from our Roth IRA and not pay any tax or penalty if we use the money to pay for our children’s college?

Answer: You can avoid the early withdrawal penalty, but you’ll owe taxes on any earnings you withdraw from a Roth IRA when you use the money for qualified higher education expenses.

To recap, you can always withdraw an amount equal to your total contributions to a Roth IRA without owing any taxes or penalties. You don’t even have to wait five years.

When you withdraw earnings, however, you can avoid taxes and penalties only if the account is at least 5 years old and you’re 59½ or older, or you’re taking the distribution because you’re totally and permanently disabled, you inherited the Roth IRA from the account owner or you’re using as much as $10,000 for a first-time home purchase.

If you don’t meet those qualifications, there are still ways to avoid the penalty if not the taxes.

Withdrawing money to pay qualified education expenses is one of those exceptions, as is paying medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, withdrawing as much as $5,000 after the birth or adoption of a child, paying an IRS levy, taking a qualified reservist distribution if you’re a military reservist called to active duty or taking a series of substantially equal periodic payments.

Let’s say you’ve contributed $20,000 to a Roth that’s now worth $30,000. The first $20,000 you withdraw is tax- and penalty-free. The final $10,000 you withdraw would be taxable, but it would not face the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you used it for your children’s college tuition, fees, books, supplies or other qualified expenses.

Q&A: When a Roth IRA makes sense

Dear Liz: I have some money saved in a brokerage account, over and above my maximum 401(k) contribution. I just turned 60. Is it advantageous to move that money into a Roth IRA or should I keep it in the brokerage account?

Answer: If you suspect you’ll need this money within five years, then you probably should leave it in the brokerage account (and move it to cash, since money needed within the next few years should not be in the stock market). Otherwise, there’s little downside to moving some of the money to a Roth IRA, if you can, and plenty of upside.

Having money in a Roth gives you “tax diversification,” or a potentially tax-free bucket of money to draw from or leave alone as you see fit. That’s in contrast to 401(k)s, regular IRAs and other retirement plans, which typically require withdrawals to begin at age 72.

You can always withdraw an amount equal to your contributions without paying taxes or penalties. Once the account is at least 5 years old and you’re over 59½, whichever comes later, you also can withdraw any earnings without tax or penalty.

You can contribute up to $7,000 to a Roth this year, assuming you have earned income of at least that amount and your modified adjusted gross income is less than $124,000 if you’re single or $196,000 if you’re married filing jointly. (The contribution limit is $6,000 for people under 50.) If your income is above those limits, your ability to contribute to a Roth starts to phase out. The ability to contribute directly to a Roth ends when your modified adjusted gross income is over $139,000 for singles and $206,000 for married couples.

Q&A: Reducing taxes in retirement

Dear Liz: I agree with this concept of delaying Social Security to lessen overall taxes and have a further suggestion. My spouse and I are gradually converting our traditional IRA account funds to Roth IRAs. The converted funds are immediately taxable but could continue to gain in value and future distributions would not be taxable. Also, Roth accounts don’t have required minimum distributions.

Answer: Conversions make the most sense when you expect to be in the same or higher tax bracket in retirement.

That’s not the case for most people because they’re in a lower tax bracket when they stop working. Some older people, however, do face higher tax rates in retirement — typically because they’ve been good savers, and required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts will push their tax rates higher.

When that’s the case, they may be able to take advantage of their current lower tax rate to do a series of Roth conversions.

The math can be tricky, though, so it’s advisable to get help from a tax pro or financial planner. You don’t want to convert too much and push yourself into a higher tax bracket, or trigger higher Medicare premiums.

If your intention is to leave retirement money to your heirs, Roth conversions may also make sense now that Congress has eliminated the stretch IRA.

Stretch IRAs used to allow non-spouse beneficiaries — often children and grandchildren — to take money out of an inherited IRA gradually over their lifetimes. This spread out the tax bill and allowed the funds to continue growing. Now inherited IRAs typically have to be drained within 10 years if the inheritor is not a spouse.

To compensate, some people are converting IRAs to Roths — essentially paying the tax bill now, so their heirs won’t have to do so later. Heirs would still have to withdraw all the money in an inherited Roth IRA within 10 years, but taxes would not be owed.

Q&A: Here’s what early retirees need to know about Roth IRA and 401(k) taxes and penalties

Dear Liz: I have been contributing to a Roth 401(k) and a Roth IRA for several years. I plan to retire early. Am I able to withdraw any of my Roth contributions without penalty before I reach age 60?

Answer: Your contributions to a Roth IRA can always be withdrawn tax free, at any time and at any age, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Once you’ve withdrawn an amount equal to your contributions, though, the rest of your money — your earnings — may be subject to taxes and penalties. To avoid those, you generally must be at least 59½ and the account must be at least five years old.

The rules are somewhat different for Roth 401(k)s. Early withdrawals from these accounts are considered a mix of contributions and earnings, so any distributions before age 59½ typically incur taxes and penalties. Even after 59½, the withdrawals could be taxed and penalized if you haven’t been contributing to the account for at least five years.

Roth 401(k)s are also subject to rules that require minimum distributions to start at age 72. Many people who retire with Roth 401(k)s roll the money into Roth IRAs to avoid these restrictions.

Wednesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Beyond Airbnb: Your guide to peer-to-peer travel platforms. Also in the news: 5 reasons to get the Orbitz rewards Visa credit card, the Roth IRA 5-Year rule, and 5 money strategies for military deployments.

Beyond Airbnb: Your Guide to Peer-to-Peer Travel Platforms
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Important lessons military families should know.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news


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Why You Should Love Robo-Advisors
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Taxes in Retirement: 7 Ways to Trim Your Bill
Ideas that can reduce financial stress in retirement.

How Roth IRA Taxes Work
A good investment at tax time.

How to save for the future when it’s uncertain
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Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Start prepping for next year’s taxes now. Also in the news: Taking the shame out of rebuilding your finances, 3 reasons to hire a fee-only financial planner, and what you should know about Roth IRA withdrawals.

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Give 2019 You a head start.

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Today’s top story: Need a gift for a college graduate? Consider a Roth IRA. Also in the news: An Olympian’s victory versus debt, how to tackle common home worries with a plan, and the best jobs to have when the economy tanks.

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A gift that will keep on giving.

How I Ditched Debt: An Olympian’s Medal-Worthy Juggling Act
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Tackle This Common Home Worry With a Plan
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The best jobs to have when the economy tanks
Is your job economy-proof?

Friday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Why the new tax law makes Roth IRAs more attractive. Also in the news: 7 ways to save on your next national park trip, how to prep for in-flight interviews and land a job, and the 6 skills you need to be financially successful.

Why the New Tax Law Makes Roth IRAs More Attractive
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A trip that doesn’t have to be too expensive.

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It’s more than just a budget.