401(k) Options After You Leave an Employer

Apart from the spike in inflation, 2023 ended the year with a relatively strong economy, boasting an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent (below the market forecast of 3.7 percent) with increases in wages, corporate profits, and economic growth over the past two quarters. Despite the positive data, a slate of companies, including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Goldman Sachs, and Bed Bath & Beyond, have all announced significant layoffs planned for this year.

Whether the result of a layoff, a new job, or retirement, the reality is that over the course of a career, most people will change jobs several times. The good news is that 401(k) plan assets are portable – meaning you can take them with you. However, it is important to be aware of all your options so that you choose the most advantageous one each time you change employers.

You Don’t Have to do Anything Right Away

The first thing to note is that the income deferrals you contributed to your employer’s retirement plan are yours to keep. However, an employer match may be subject to a vesting schedule. If you do not work at the company long enough to satisfy the vesting schedule, you might lose all or a portion of the unvested assets in your account.

It is not necessary to roll over your 401(k) assets right away; in many cases, you can leave them where they are indefinitely. However, you will no longer be able to make contributions to the plan, receive matching funds, or tap that money for a loan. If the plan has a wide range of investment options, low fees, and expenses and has performed well, then leaving assets where they are may be your best choice.

On the other hand, you should investigate to ensure your plan does not change once you no longer work for a former employer, as some plans charge higher fees for inactive employees. Also, some employers may require you to cash out of your account balance – usually if it is below $1,000. If your balance is above $1,000, that employer must offer you the option to roll those assets into a personal IRA.

Take the Money

If you opt to withdraw the cash value of your account, you will be subject to an immediate tax impact. Your company may cut you a check for the amount withdrawn, but it is required to withhold 20 percent of the amount to prepay the tax you’ll owe. If you have not yet reached age 59½, the IRA will classify the distribution as an early withdrawal. This means you might owe a 10 percent penalty in addition to the federal tax withholding. The balance also may be subject to state and local taxes. All told, you could lose up to 50 percent of the account value if you take an early distribution.

For young adults in particular, it can be tempting to withdraw their 401(k) balance when they leave an employer. They may not have acquired much in assets, not met vesting requirements for the employer match, and figure they have more need for the money now than in 50 years when they retire. However, bear in mind that investments made early as an adult often purchase good, dependable stocks at low prices, with decades for those stocks to appreciate. Holding onto those assets over the long term allows for maximum growth opportunity, whereas withdrawing them means you’ll have to start all over again.

Roll Over Assets to Your New Employer’s 401(k)

Some employer plans will accept transfers from a former retirement plan, but not all of them do. You will have to inquire. If this is an option, recognize that there is no need to roll over right away. You may want to work there for awhile to ensure you’re happy, the company is viable, and you plan to stay there a while. Furthermore, you may have to wait until the next enrollment period to request a rollover, and some employers may require that you work a specific period of time (e.g., one full year) before you can transfer old 401(k) assets to your new plan.

Open a Personal IRA

A third option is to transfer your old employer’s 401(k) assets to a personal individual retirement account (IRA) that you open through a brokerage of your choice. The new brokerage custodian will give you the forms needed to request the formal rollover, and your former 401(k) plan administrator might have forms to complete as well. It is best to have the two custodians conduct the transfer directly so that you never take possession of the funds yourself, which could result in tax penalties if not conducted correctly.

You’ll need to select new investment options (e.g., mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, individual stocks or bonds) for the IRA, and be sure to compare its fees with your old account. By rolling over to an IRA that you manage yourself, you will have a wider range of investment options and can shop for plans with lower fees.

Bear in mind that, moving forward, any additional contributions you make to this IRA will be subject to lower annual contribution limits (in 2023: $6,500 if under age 50; $7,500 for 50 and older) than 401(k) plans as well as the income limitations applicable to a Roth IRA (2023: less than $153,000 Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) if you are single; less than $228,000 if you’re married and file jointly).

There are three IRA rollover options for 401(k) plan assets:

  • Roll over to a new or existing traditional IRA – No taxes are due on the assets you transfer, and earnings continue to accumulate tax deferred until withdrawn. It’s best to directly roll-over the funds from one custodian to another.
  • Roll over to a new or existing Roth IRA – This option requires that you pay taxes on the rollover amount in the tax filing year they are transferred. You may use money from the 401(k) plan or pay the tax separately using other assets (the latter is preferable so that your equity continues to appreciate). Once the IRA has been open for at least five years, and you are at least age 59½, contributions and earnings can be withdrawn free of all taxes and penalties. Furthermore, unlike the traditional IRA, you are not required to take minimum distributions (RMDs) from a Roth.
  • Roll over a Roth 401(k) to a new or existing Roth IRA – No taxes are due when the money is transferred, and new earnings accumulate tax deferred. Contributions and earnings are eligible for tax-free withdrawals once the IRA has been open at least five years and you are at least age 59½.

Do Something

Leaving your 401(k) with a former employer is a perfectly acceptable option, but you should consider consolidating your 401(k) plans at some point. More and more people are working for multiple employers throughout their careers, and they may lose track of where they hold 401(k) assets. In fact, at the end of 2021, there was a nationwide total of $1.35 trillion sitting in forgotten 401(k) plans.

Don’t let that happen to you.


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