401k Options When You Change Jobs

Jane Young, CFP, EA

In addition to the other commotion related to changing jobs, you need to decide what to do with your 401k account.  You have four possible options; leave it with your employer, transfer it to your new employer’s plan (if allowed), transfer it to a Rollover IRA or cash it out.  Unless you’re in a dire situation, avoid withdrawing your 401k funds.  Cashing out your 401k will result in taxation of the full amount at regular income tax rates as well as a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you leave your job prior to age 55 and don’t qualify for an exception.  Additionally, you will forfeit the opportunity to earn tax deferred, compounded growth on the hard earned money you have put away.

If you have at least $5,000 in your 401k account, you should be able to leave it with your old employer.  The decision to transfer your 401k or leave it in place largely depends on the quality and variety of investment options and the fees charged by the plan.  Some 401k plans provide access to low cost institutional funds that have lower or comparable fees to those available in an IRA.  If the fees are high and your choices are limited consider moving your account.  Another downfall to leaving your 401k with your old employer can be the danger of neglecting or forgetting about it, resulting in the failure to monitor and rebalance your account.

When changing jobs you may want to consider transferring your 401k to your new employer’s plan. Again, this should only be considered if they have a wide variety of low cost investment options.  You also may find it more convenient to have all of your funds in one place.  A disadvantage to this choice is once you transfer your 401k to a new employer’s plan you may lose the option to later move it to another plan or custodian.  You are locked in if the new plan administrator makes changes to the investment offerings or fees that you don’t agree with.  Alternatively, some advantages of a 401k over an IRA include the ability to borrow against your account, as long as you remain employed, and a 401k may offer greater protection against creditors than an IRA.

Your final option is to transfer your 401k to a Rollover IRA.  A Rollover IRA can provide you with the greatest variety of investment options including mutual funds, individual stocks, bonds and CDs.  You have the freedom to choose from a wide variety of custodians including discount brokerage firms and mutual fund companies to get the best quality, selection, service and cost.  If you decide to transfer your 401k to an IRA; select a custodian, open an IRA account, and ask your 401k administrator to process a direct transfer to your new account.  To avoid negative tax consequences be sure the check is payable to the custodian, not directly to you.

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