Can I or When Can I Take Tax Free Penalty Free Distributions From My Converted Traditional to Roth IRA?

Question: My 35 year old son is converting $160,000 form a tradtitiional IRA to a Roth. Assuming a $50,000 tax bite, and assuming he pays the $50,000 with outside money so he converts the whole $160,000, can the $160,000 be accessed penalty free immediately because it becomes the basis and the tax has been paid?

Answer: Unfortunately not.  Assuming the conversion represents the only Roth money your son has, the conversion amount cannot be removed within 5 tax years without paying the premature distribution penalty of 10%.  The ordering rules for distributions from a Roth IRA are 1) contributions 2) conversions, and 3) profits.  So if your son has made contributions to a Roth IRA he can withdraw those at any time without penalty.  Beyond the contributions, conversions can be removed only after 5 years without penalty, unless he meets one of the other exceptions to the penalty rules (most commonly 59 ½).  Profits can only be withdrawn tax and penalty free as qualified distributions, meaning your son has had a Roth IRA somewhere for at least 5 years and meets one of four other tests (again, most commonly 59 1/2).  You may find the description of the ordering rules beginning on page 66 of IRS Publication 590, which you can review and download from the IRS at  Good luck with your investing!

Follow Up Question: Thank you for a quick response. I did go to the site. From the website and your email, this is what I understand. Please forgive any repetition. I have received very different answers from seminars and regional offices, so your  expert help is hugely valuable! I want my son to be clear and comfortable as he is concerned about accessible, penalty free rainy day money prior to age 59 1/2. I also want to be able to deliver correct information to other investors. Is this correct: if my son converts $160k of traditional IRA money and pays the taxes out of pocket, in 5 tax years he can access the $160k without penalty at approximately age 41?  He currently has $15k in an existing Roth he has had for 7 years. The contribution portion of the $15k can be taken today penalty free and the profit portion will be penalized if accessed prior to age 591/2. Correct? Any profit is subject to regular Roth rules and those conditions are clearly defined and I understand them. I will not continue to bother you, but knowledgeable experts are hard to find.

Follow Up Answer: Yes, according to the paragraphs describing the additional tax on distributions beginning on page 64 of the 2009 IRS Publication 590, your son must pay the 10% penalty for distributions of his conversion contribution from his Roth IRA made within 5 tax years of the conversion – in other words, if he converts in 2010 and takes a distribution before January 1, 2015 he will be subject to this penalty to the extent that this distribution exceeds his regular contributions to his Roth IRAs.  To figure the taxable part of any non-qualified distribution (as opposed to the penalty) use the Worksheet 2-3 on page 67 of Publication 590.  You will see from that worksheet that the amount of his regular Roth IRA contributions are not includible in income (line 12 subtracts these amounts out) and are therefore not subject to the 10% premature distribution penalty either (see the paragraph entitled Other Early Distributions  at the top of page 66, which indicates “you must pay the 10% additional tax on the taxable part of any distributions that are not qualified distributions”).

Having said this, as you know from the disclaimer at the bottom of my prior emails you are not able to rely on this email as tax advice, so you should absolutely contact your own tax advisor to verify the implications for your individual tax situation.  I would be curious to learn what you have heard from seminars and regional offices if you care to share it.  I know there is a lot of confusion out there on this topic, even by some professionals such as CPAs.  Perhaps the most confusing thing is the fact that there are 2 different 5 year clocks when it comes to Roth IRAs, one being the 5 years necessary for a distribution to be a qualified distribution and the other being the 5 year clock for conversion contributions before you can escape the 10% premature distribution penalty, as we have been discussing here.  Anyway, thank you for your question.  Let me know if I can assist you further. Have a great day!

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