From a previous employer, I had a traditional 401K which upon leaving that job I rolled into a traditional IRA.

With a Roth IRA you can withdraw the "contributions" but not the gains.

My question is, if I convert my traditional IRA to a roth IRA (and thus pay tax on it as if it were income in the current tax year), can I then withdraw my "contributions"?

If the answer is yes, then how are the "contributions" calculated? I see 3 likely possibilities:

  1. Amount originally contributed from paycheck during time of employment
  2. Amount at time of rollover to traditional IRA
  3. Amount at time of conversion from traditional IRA to Roth IRA

From a tax-fairness perspective, case 1 seems most appropriate. But the amount of the original contributions would be difficult or impossible for the current investment management company to determine.

  • "With a Roth IRA you can withdraw the "contributions" but not the gains." You can withdraw the gains. It's just that if you do it before retirement, you have to pay tax and penalty.
    – user102008
    Mar 20, 2015 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


In the same way that you are taxed on the actual amount of money you convert from the Traditional IRA to the Roth IRA -- rather than on the amount of money that you initially contributed to your 401(k) or on the amount of money that you rolled over to your Traditional IRA -- that converted amount becomes the contributions to your Roth.

So (3) is the correct answer.

It doesn't matter how you accumulated the money in the first place; as long as the IRS has had the opportunity to dig their claws into it, it counts as a contribution to your Roth.

  • Thanks for your response. Are there any official tax docs from which this conclusion can be deduced?
    – Joe
    Mar 20, 2015 at 21:38
  • I don't have an official doc at hand to quote, but I found this article that shows the equivalence of all sources of contributions (including rollovers from a Traditional IRA) with a detailed numerical example. It's pretty helpful, actually.
    – dg99
    Mar 20, 2015 at 21:50

As for income tax purposes, dg99's answer is correct. The entire amount that is converted is post-tax (you had to pay tax on any pre-tax amounts upon conversion), so you do not pay tax on it when you withdraw it in a non-qualified distribution, similar to with contributions.

However, there's another, perhaps more important, consideration here -- the early withdrawal penalty for non-qualified distributions from Roth IRA. For non-qualified distributions of contributions, there is never an early withdrawal penalty. For non-qualified distributions of rollovers and conversions, there is an early withdrawal penalty if withdrawn within 5 years of the rollover or conversion, but only on the part of the rollover or conversion that was taxable during the conversion. So if you want to withdraw within 5 years of the conversion, then it works differently from direct contributions.

Because contributions and conversions have different treatment for the penalty, the ordering between them matters too. Contributions are always withdrawn before rollovers and conversions (a later contribution still comes before an earlier rollover or conversion). But within rollovers and conversions, they are ordered by year (an earlier rollover or conversion comes before a later one), and within a year, the taxable part is ordered before the non-taxable part.

  • 2
    Nice catch. If dg99's answer were complete, why not convert, wait a day, and withdraw with no penalty? BTW, you are a 2000+ rep member, why not assign a name to your profile? Mar 20, 2015 at 22:22
  • 1
    Yes, there's definitely a difference in how the types of contributions are treated during withdrawal. The article I linked covers some of this in their example.
    – dg99
    Mar 22, 2015 at 3:01

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