What To Do With Your 401 When You Quit Your Job
One of the commonly overlooked aspects of changing jobs is deciding what to do with your 401 tied to your previous employer when you leave. Its understandablewhen youre bursting with all the energy and excitement that comes with tackling new challenges at a new job, figuring out what to do with your old 401 will probably be the last thing on your mind.
But that doesnt mean its not important. What you decide to do with your old 401 when you leave your job can potentially net you thousands of dollars in avoided fees and stronger investment returns over the long term depending on which path you ultimately decide to take. And when were talking about that kind of money, it pays to understand what your options are and the consequences of each.
In this article, were going to dive deep into the four primary options you have at your disposal when you decide to leave your company for whatever reasoneither voluntarily or involuntarily . By the end of it, you should have a solid understanding of the pros and cons of each and a pretty clear idea of which direction you should take based on your own unique financial situation.
I do need to point out that before making any significant financial decisions, you should consult a professional who can guide you through the process and help you better understand the implications of your decisions.
Option #: Leave Your 401 Account With Your Former Employer
Your first option is as simple as it gets: Do nothing.
Theres nothing stopping you from simply leaving your money where it is inside your current 401 account and letting it sit. As we covered above, your 401 account is portable, so it remains yours even if you leave the employer its tied to. And while this isnt the worst option you could choose , it does come with a few notable disadvantages.
The first disadvantage of leaving your funds inside your old 401 account has to do with the lack of low cost, high quality funds available for you to invest in.
Many companies rely on third party administrators to run their 401 plans for them, which tend to have relationships with other mutual fund companies that want their funds to be featured in the plans. Often, these plan administrators will offer to manage a companys entire 401 program either for free or at a very low cost. Thats great for the employer, but theres a catch: the way they make money is through the high fees and sales commissions that go along with the funds available in the plan. Unsuspecting employees will think their money is being invested wisely, when in reality, its being subjected to onerous fees that are being kicked back to the plan administrators.
Difficulty of Managing Your Portfolio
Maintaining Financial Discipline
Roll It Over Into An Ira
If youre not moving to a new employer, or if your new employer doesnt offer a retirement plan, you still have a good option. You can roll your old 401 into an IRA. Youll be opening the account on your own, through the financial institution of your choice. The possibilities are pretty much limitless. That is, youre no longer restricted to the options made available by an employer.
The biggest advantage of rolling a 401 into an IRA is the freedom to invest how you want, where you want, and in what you want, says John J. Riley, AIF, founder, and chief investment strategist for Cornerstone Investment Services LLC in Providence, R.I. There are few limits on an IRA rollover.
One item you might want to consider is that in some states, such as California, if you are in the middle of a lawsuit or think there is the potential for a future claim against you, you may want to leave your money in a 401 instead of rolling it into an IRA, says financial advisor Jarrett B. Topel, CFP for Topel & DiStasi Wealth Management LLC in Berkeley, Calif. There is more creditor protection in California with 401s than there is with IRAs. In other words, it is harder for creditors/plaintiffs to get at the money in your 401 than it is to get at the money in your IRA.
If you have an outstanding loan from your 401 and leave your job, youll have to repay it within a specified time period. If you dont, the amount will be treated as a distribution for tax purposes.
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You Have $1000 To $5000 In Your 401
If you had contributed more than $1000 but below $5000, the plan administrator is required to roll over the funds to a new retirement plan instead of transferring the funds as a lump sum. The employer transfers the funds to a retirement plan of their choice, and this type of transfer takes a longer duration to complete, usually up to 60 days.
A retirement saver must wait until the forced transfer is complete to access the funds. If you are 59 Â½ and older, you can withdraw the funds from the IRA without paying a penalty tax on the distribution. However, you will still owe income tax on the distribution, and you will be required to report the distribution in your taxable income for the year. If you don’t want the employer to decide for you, you should instruct your plan administrator what to do with your 401 money.
You Can Keep Your Plan With Your Old Employer
The first thing you need to decide is what to do with the money in your old plan. Option one is simple: you can leave where it is, in your former employers plan.
The major advantage of leaving it there is that you dont have to do anything and your account can stay where it is. The disadvantage is that you may be charged some of the fees that the company usually pays for but doesnt cover for ex-employees.
Also worth considering here is whether you left your old job on good or bad terms.
Take The Money And Run
While there is nothing legally stopping you from liquidating your old 401 and taking a lump-sum distribution, you probably shouldnt. Why were you saving in the first place if you intended to deplete your retirement savings unnecessarily just because you could? You will have to include the distribution in your yearly income tax filing, and the tax burden of a full withdrawal may not be worth what feels like a windfall at the moment.
How big a hit will you take? You will be taxed at your regular income tax rate and pay a penalty of 10 percent of the amount of the distribution if you take it before you are 59.5 years old. You can calculate just how much it will cost you with this calculator.
Plus, you will have to start saving for retirement all over again.
Option : Cash Out Your Old 401
Another option is cashing out your 401, which does exactly what you would expect provides cash. But there are many implications to consider. The cash you withdraw is considered income, and you may incur local, state and federal taxes by doing so. You will lose the benefit of giving your accounts investments time to grow, and you may need to work longer to make up the difference. Whats more, if you leave your employer prior to the year you turn 55 and are younger than 59 ½, you will be required to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty on top of any taxes on the money.
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Rollover Your Old 401k Money Into A New Ira
Known as a rollover IRA, this type of IRA is designed to accept the transfer of assets from a former employers 401k. If your new employer doesnt offer a 401k or youre not pleased with the plans costs or investment options, this is probably your best option because it will give you the most flexibility and control to stay on track with your retirement savings goals. In fact, this is what we generally recommend to our clients who have old 401ks. IRAs generally have more investment options, no plan fees, and greater withdrawal flexibility.
In order to execute a rollover IRA, your first step is to open a new IRA with an investment advisor or financial institution. The rollover process is similar to the one described above except that you will instruct the administrator of your former employers 401k to transfer plan assets directly into your new rollover IRA.
Conversely, you can have a check sent directly to you, but make sure that the check is made payable to your IRA custodian for benefit of your name. The former plan administrator will withhold 20% of the amount for the payment of taxes and you will have 60 days to deposit the full balance, including the 20% withheld, into your rollover IRA. Failure to deposit the entire amount into your new IRA could result in current tax liabilities plus a 10 percent penalty if youre under age 59½.
What Happens To Your 401 After You Leave A Job
It’s becoming increasingly common for professionals to switch jobs several times throughout their working careers, meaning that most people have to decide what to do with 401 after leaving the job. When you switch jobs or get laid off, you have to evaluate your options on what do you with your 401 account.
After leaving your current job, you have up to 60 days to decide what happens to your retirement savings. Otherwise, your savings will be automatically transferred to another retirement account. In most cases, employers have clear guidelines indicating what you can do with your 401.
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Leave Your Money With Your Former Employer
For some people, the most plausible option is to leave their investment with their former employer. This option allows you to continue making investments with the money even if you are not working with that employer. In most cases, old employers allow you to leave your investment if you have more than $5,000 in your 401 retirement savings account. If your account holds less than this amount, your previous employer may decide to cash out your plan and send you a check for the balance.
The advantage of this option is that it allows you to leave your 401 with your former employer if they offer good terms. Leaving your retirement account with your previous employer allows you to wait for registration to open with your new employer.
When you leave your 401 savings with your former employer, your access to your money can be limited. Some employers can levy huge maintenance fees, implement restrictions on investment choices and prevent access to your savings until you reach retirement age. Unless you’re about to retire and you know you won’t change jobs often, avoid leaving your 401 with your former employer.
Leave The Money Where It Is
Assuming your current employer allows it — not all do — you may decide to leave your 401 right where it is.
If the plan has top-notch, low-cost investment options, this might not be a bad choice.
Know that when leaving money behind in a 401, there may be restrictions on whether you can take a loan against that account or on the size of any pre-retirement withdrawals you might make — so check the rules of the plan before making your final decision.
The decision to stay with your current plan, however, might not be yours to make if your balance is below $5,000. A majority of workplace plans will require that you transfer the balance elsewhere or cash it out, according to the most recent survey of workplace retirement plans by the Plan Sponsor Council of America.
If your balance is over $5,000 but your current plan doesn’t have great, low-cost investments, you might be better off transferring the money to another tax-advantaged retirement account .
The same is true if you already have several other existing retirement accounts at old employers.
“A really bad outcome is to have lots of little accounts scattered around. It’s easy to forget about them. It doesn’t let you appreciate how much you’ve really saved. And the odds of screwing something up gets higher,” said Anne Lester, the former head of retirement solutions at JP Morgan Asset Management who founded the Aspen Leadership Forum on Retirement Savings in partnership with AARP.
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Option #: Roll Over Your Old 401 To Your New Employers Plan
If your new employer offers a 401 plan, then you have the option to essentially transfer the balance of any 401 account tied to a previous employer into the 401 account you open with your new employer. These balance transfers are known as rollovers, where you roll the balance of your old account into your new one. And, these rollovers are far more financially prudent than the previous two options we explored above.
When you roll your old balance into your new 401 account, all of your funds stay completely intactno taxes, no fees, nothing. That money is free to continue growing tax-free, and any funds you roll over dont count towards the annual 401 contribution limit . That means you can continue making contributions to your new 401 account regardless of the size of the balance that you roll over from your old one, which is great for building wealth over the long term.
There are a couple instances where rolling money from an old 401 into a new one might make more sense than simply rolling it into an IRA .
Rolling your old 401 balance into your new one isnt a bad option by any means, and youll have to make that call based on your own individual financial situation.
Theres one more option youll want to consider, however, and that is:
Youre Making Life More Complicated
Every 401k has its own specific rules, its own options, its own statements, its own online protocols, its own beneficiary forms, etc. Keeping separate 401k accounts means you have to keep up to date on all the particulars of each plan. Thats just adding more bureaucratic misery on top. Deciding what happens to your 401k when you quit your job is hard enough on its own. If you find that properly managing one account is challenging, think about how much more difficult managing several will be.
It will be almost impossible to maintain a consistent investment strategy across multiple 401ks at multiple providers. For example, lets say that you decide a 50%/50% split between stocks and bonds is ideal for your portfolio. If you have multiple 401k accounts, youll need to make sure that each of them is split 50%/50% to maintain that allocation across the entire portfolio. And what happens if one account has grown to the point where its 60%/40%, and another has become 30%/70%. If the values of those accounts are significantly different, it becomes a nightmare to determine what to sell and what to buy in each account in order to attain the 50%/50% split in our example.
See our blog post on Stocks and Bonds Diversification.
Transfer The Money To Your New Employer’s 401
If your new employer’s plan allows it, you may transfer your old 401 savings into your new 401 plan.
In Lester’s view, “rolling your old account into your new employer’s 401 plan should be your default unless there’s a good reason not to.”
But you’ll only want to do that if the new plan offers solid, low-cost investments — or at the very least, low-cost target date funds.
The benefit of consolidating your retirement savings into one employer-sponsored plan is that it will be easier for you to track and manage the money.
Plus it will reinforce for you the amount of wealth you’re building and encourage you to keep going. In other words, it’s better to have one account with $125,000 in it than five separate accounts with $25,000 each. “Our brain can play tricks on us,” Lester said.
Be sure to instruct the custodian of your old plan to transfer your savings via “direct rollover.” That means the money will be sent directly from your old plan to your new one.
If you don’t do that, your old plan will send a check directly to you when it closes out your account. Then it will be up to you to make the deposit into your new 401, but that can be an expensive, confusing hassle you’ll want to avoid.
Here’s why: First, your employer will be required to withhold 20% of the money for taxes and you only have 60 days from the day of your withdrawal to redeposit100% of your money from the old plan into your new one for it to be treated as a tax-free distribution.
Option : Keep Your 401 With Your Old Employer
Many are surprised to learn that in certain circumstances, you can leave your 401 with your old companys retirement plan. However, if you have less than $5,000 in retirement savings, your company may force you out by issuing you a check. If they issue you a check, its crucial that you transfer the funds into a new 401 within 60 days, or else youll have to pay income tax on the distributed balance.
Leaving your retirement savings with your old employer has its drawbacks. For example, you wont be able to make any more contributions to the account, and you may also not be able to take out a loan on your 401. Your old employer may also charge administration fees on the account now that youre no longer an active participant. Additionally, youre still locked in to the funds that plan offers, which may be limited and expensive. For these reasons, many people particularly those new to the workforce choose to roll over their 401 to their new employer.
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