Is there a new one-rollover-per-year rule for IRAs?

Yes–starting in 2015.

The Internal Revenue Code says that if you receive a distribution from an IRA, you can’t make a tax-free (60-day) rollover into another IRA if you’ve already completed a tax-free rollover within the previous 12 months. The long-standing position of the IRS, reflected in Publication 590 and proposed regulations, was that this rule applied separately to each IRA you own.

Using an IRS example, assume you have two traditional IRAs, IRA-1 and IRA-2. You take a distribution from IRA-1 and within 60 days roll it over into your new traditional IRA-3. Under the old rule, you could not make another tax-free 60-day rollover from IRA-1 (or IRA-3) within one year from the date of your distribution. But you could still make a tax-free rollover from IRA-2 to any other traditional IRA.

Recently a taxpayer, Mr. Bobrow, did just what the example above seemed to allow, taking a distribution from IRA-1 and repaying it back to IRA-1 within 60 days, and then taking a distribution from IRA-2 and repaying it back to IRA-2 within 60 days. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, the IRS decided this was no longer the correct interpretation, and told Mr. Bobrow that his transactions violated the one-rollover-per-year rule. The case made its way to the Tax Court, which agreed with the IRS and held that regardless of how many IRAs he or she maintains, a taxpayer may make only one nontaxable 60-day rollover within each 12-month period.

Not surprisingly, the IRS has announced that it will follow the Bobrow case beginning in 2015 (more technically, the new rule will not apply to any rollover that involves a distribution occurring before January 1, 2015). For the rest of 2014 the “old” one-rollover-per-year rule in IRS Publication 590 (see above) will apply to any IRA distributions you receive. But keep in mind that you can make unlimited direct transfers (as opposed to 60-day rollovers) between IRAs–these aren’t subject to the one-rollover-per-year rule. So if you don’t have a need to actually use the cash for some period of time, it’s generally safer to use the direct transfer approach and avoid this potential problem altogether.

(Note: The one-rollover-per-year rule also applies–separately–to your Roth IRAs.)