What Is a Qualified Distribution?

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DEFINITION
A qualified distribution allows you to avoid penalties, and taxes earnings on money withdrawn from a Roth retirement account. While you contribute after-tax money to Roth accounts, the IRS has specific requirements you must meet, or “qualifications,” to avoid paying taxes on withdrawals from such plans.

A qualified distribution allows you to avoid penalties, and taxes earnings on money withdrawn from a Roth retirement account. While you contribute after-tax money to Roth accounts, the IRS has specific requirements you must meet, or “qualifications,” to avoid paying taxes on withdrawals from such plans.

Let’s look at qualified distributions to learn how they work, any IRS criteria that can affect taxes, and how qualified distributions differ from eligible Roth account rollovers.

Definition and Examples of a Qualified Distribution

A qualified distribution is a Roth IRA or designated Roth account withdrawal made under specific IRS requirements that incurs no taxes or penalties. Qualifying withdrawals reduce your tax burden when taking out Roth earnings in retirement.

If your distribution isn’t qualified per the IRS’ rules, withdrawing earnings from your Roth account may lead to implication of regular income taxes due on that portion and a 10% tax penalty if the withdrawal is made before you turn 59 ½ years of age.

The basic IRS requirements for a qualified distribution is when a withdrawal is made:

  • From a Roth account open for at least five tax years, starting the year you first contributed
  • At age 59 ½ or older
  • Due to your disability
  • Due to your death, by or for your beneficiary
  • Up to $10,000 to purchase, build, or renovate your first home

The five-year holding period begins January 1 of the year a contribution is made to any Roth IRA.

Let’s say you opened a Roth IRA with a brokerage a decade ago and contributed the maximum amount allowed. During that time, you gained significant earnings on your contributions. At age  59 ½, you decide to withdraw both your contributions and part of your earnings. Because you met the account and age requirements, your Roth IRA withdrawal is considered a qualified distribution. Therefore, you won’t face an early withdrawal penalty or any income taxes on the withdrawn earnings portion.

How a Qualified Distribution Works


Roth retirement account options from which you might take qualified distributions include the Roth IRA and designated Roth accounts such as a Roth 401(k), Roth 403(b), Roth Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), and Roth 457. You might get a Roth IRA on your own through a brokerage. On the other hand, a designated Roth account exists as an option for using post-tax dollars to contribute to an employer-provided plan. These options will differ based on how contributions occur and how you can qualify to make them.

Whether you have a Roth IRA or designated Roth account, you’ve already paid income taxes on your contribution at the tax rate you’re subject to. This means you don’t get to defer taxes like you would with a traditional IRA or 401(k).

However, the benefit is you might end up better off if your post-retirement tax rate is higher than the year you made contributions. In addition, being able to access your Roth contributions tax-free offers some convenience and peace of mind.

Qualified distribution rules come into play when you withdraw earnings from your Roth account. Unless you meet the IRS requirements for a qualified distribution, you’ll have to include the earnings—but not the original contribution—when you calculate your gross income on your tax return. Therefore, you’ll have to pay your current tax rate on the amount. This can particularly disadvantage you if you fall in a high tax bracket, since you have a lot of other income at the time.

On top of paying taxes on your earnings, the IRS also requires you to pay another 10% tax for the early withdrawal. However, an exception may apply where you just need to pay the income taxes on earnings but not the additional penalty.

For example, you can avoid the 10% penalty on Roth IRA earnings to pay for:

  • Qualified education costs, health insurance during unemployment
  • Out-of-pocket medical costs that reach more than 7.5% of that year’s adjusted gross income
  • Up to $10,000 for a first-time home purchase
  • Up to $5,000 for a qualified adoption or birth

Check with your state’s tax laws to determine if any additional income taxes would apply on Roth plan withdrawals, especially if they’re nonqualified.

To see how a qualified distribution affects your taxes, let’s say you withdraw $5,000 from a Roth IRA. In this case, consider that your Roth account has $4,500 in contributions and $500 from earnings. As long as you meet the criteria for a qualified distribution, you don’t need to pay your current tax rate on the $500 in earnings. You may or may not be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty depending on your age.

Qualified Roth Distribution vs. Eligible Roth Rollover

Qualified Roth Distribution Eligible Roth Rollover
Withdraw funds from your account Move funds to another Roth account
Avoid penalty and taxes Taxes need to be paid on previously untaxed rollover money
Must meet IRS rules Must follow IRS rules

If you want to make a withdrawal of earnings because you simply need to move funds from one Roth account to another, consider an eligible Roth rollover instead. This option allows you to move funds between two Roth IRAs or between one designated Roth account to either another designated Roth account or Roth IRA. If you’re rolling over funds to a Roth IRA, you can move both the taxable and nontaxable portions; otherwise, you can just roll over the taxable portion.

You will need to pay taxes on any money you previously haven’t paid taxes on and roll over into a Roth or a designated Roth account.

You can do this through a direct rollover, where you withdraw the funds and deposit the money yourself in the new Roth account. Alternatively, you can select an indirect rollover, where the plan holder transfers the funds to the new Roth account.

As long as you follow the IRS directions for the rollover, you can avoid the 10% penalty and income taxes on earnings. Specifically, you’ll have 60 days for the removed funds to be put in the new Roth account. In addition, if you’re rolling over from one Roth IRA to another, you can only do so once per year. If you don’t meet these requirements, the IRS will reclassify the attempted rollover as a Roth account distribution, with your earnings subject to the usual tax treatment.

Key Takeaways

  • A qualified distribution comes from a Roth retirement account and must meet certain criteria to provide tax benefits.
  • You can avoid getting taxed on Roth account earnings and paying the 10% extra tax when you take a qualified distribution.
  • Key criteria include having owned the account for five years since the first contribution and either reaching age 59 ½, passing away, or becoming disabled.
  • Depending on the Roth account type, you might qualify for an exemption from the 10% tax penalty even if your distribution isn’t qualified.
  • An eligible rollover between Roth accounts can serve as an alternative that can also avoid negative tax implications.

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