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How Direct IRA Transfers Work


If you want to move your individual retirement account (IRA) balance from one provider to another, simply call the current provider and request a “trustee-to-trustee” transfer. This moves money directly from one financial institution to another, and it won’t trigger taxes. However, you must follow some rules to do it right. We’ll walk you through the direct IRA transfer process. To make sure you’re moving your savings to the right place, consult a financial advisor who can carefully analyze your situation.

IRA to IRA Transfer

The easiest types of transfers you can initiate in the retirement plan world are the ones involving the same type of account. So say you opened a traditional IRA with one financial institution, but you found a better option with another financial institution. Maybe they charge lower fees or provide better fund options.

The first step is gathering your current account information. So collect passwords, account numbers, statements and other materials. You should also gather information from the receiving financial entity such as their main address. You may need this when you contact your financial institution and request a trustee-to-trustee transfer or direct transfer. This ensures your money moves electronically from one financial institution to another without ever reaching your hands. As a result, you avoid tax consequences.

Otherwise, the bank or other entity may send you a check for the current balance, possibly triggering tax consequences. To avoid owing taxes and being penalized (if you’re younger than 59.5 years old), you must deposit the check in a different IRA account within 60 days of the check’s issue date. If you miss the time window, the IRS considers the amount sent to you as a distribution. If you’re under 59.5 years old, the distribution will also typically trigger a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

IRA to Roth IRA Conversion

People who want to transfer their IRAs are often converting their IRA account to a Roth IRA. If you’re sticking with the same financial institution, you can simply contact it and request a conversion. However, the transfer amount will be reported as income, which you’ll have to pay taxes on.

Of course, this assumes that you funded your traditional IRA entirely with pre-tax money. It’s possible, though, to make after-tax contributions to a traditional IRA. This is known as a non-deductible IRA. In this case, you may not owe taxes when you convert it to a Roth IRA if you’ve had no gains. Or you’d owe taxes only on the gains and on the portion of your balance funded with pre-tax money. But the process also known as a backdoor Roth IRA conversion can be complex. We recommend you consult a qualified financial advisor when considering this move.

If the conversion tax seems too big to take on all at once, you can move your IRA balance into a Roth IRA in portions each year. That said, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) reduced the tax rates for many Americans to major lows. They are scheduled to expire in 2025 or even sooner if political action scales it back, so you may want to convert as much as you can each year.

401(k) to IRA Direct Rollover

You can transfer funds from your old 401(k) into a new IRA

Another kind of IRA transfer, which is technically called a rollover, is when you move your 401(k) balance to an IRA. Typically, you’d do this after leaving a job. You can do so by contacting your 401(k) plan administrator and requesting a direct rollover from your 401(k) into an IRA of your choice. By using this specific language, you’re avoiding the same tax consequences mentioned above.

As mentioned before, in the retirement plan world, “rollovers” and “transfers” are actually different. The IRS generally defines a rollover as a movement of funds from a qualified plan that’s not an IRA, such as a 401(k), directly into an IRA. The process simply involves different paperwork, because you must report the move to the IRS.

In addition, you can perform an indirect rollover. In this case, your 401(k) plan provider sends you a check for your balance. You then have 60 days to deposit it into an IRA provider, or face tax consequences. The IRS permits you to perform indirect rollovers once every 12 months.

One exception to the IRS regulations is if your account has less than $1,000. If so, your employer will most likely close the account and send you a check for the total balance. This check will have already subtracted income taxes. However, the IRS will not impose its early withdrawal penalty if you deposit the money into another qualified retirement account within 60 days. If you don’t, the government will tax the money to the fullest extent: as income and as an early withdrawal if you are younger than 59.5.

Can You Transfer a Roth IRA to a Traditional IRA?

While transferring a Roth IRA from one financial institution to another is a perfectly normal transaction, you can’t transfer Roth assets to a traditional IRA. Since you’ve already paid the taxes on the money you contributed to a Roth IRA, converting or transferring those assets to a traditional, pre-tax account isn’t possible. The IRS has a useful chart to help you visualize which types of rollovers are and aren’t allowed. As you can see, Roth-to-traditional-IRA rollovers aren’t permitted.

The IRS previously allowed for Roth conversions to be undone and reversed in case a taxpayer had second thoughts about their conversion or suddenly needed the money back that they paid in taxes, but the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 banned the recharacterization of Roth conversions. Now, when you convert pre-tax contributions into Roth assets, the process is permanent and cannot be reversed.

Bottom Line

You can initiate an IRA transfer now to maximize your retirement savings

The simplest kind of IRA transfer is a trustee-to-trustee or direct transfer. The involved financial institutions move the money between each other. You can request a direct transfer from an IRA to another IRA account or a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA account. To move funds from a 401(k) to an IRA, request a direct rollover. Again, the involved providers will shift the money between each other. By making a direct rollover or direct transfer between IRA accounts, you avoid triggering taxes. Before moving large balances or making other complex retirement planning decisions, though, you may be better off consulting a financial advisor first.

Retirement Tips

  • Planning for retirement can be complex and overwhelming, but a financial advisor can help. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you’re thinking about moving your IRA, take a look at our reviews of available IRA and Roth IRA plans.
  • In addition to the money in your IRA, you should also account for Social Security. To find out how much you can expect to receive from the government each year, use our Social Security calculator.

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