Career · June 17, 2020

Your Options for a 401(k) Rollover When You Switch Jobs

A new job comes with a whole set of to-do's and decisions. Deciding whether you should roll over your 401(k) to your new employer might seem like a relatively minor detail, but it can have a big impact on your financial future.

If your new plan will allow a 401(k) rollover, it might be a great choice. Consolidating your 401(k) assets could make them easier to manage. Before you decide, consider some alternatives, including other rollover options.


Roll over into a traditional IRA

Like 401(k)s, individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, grow your contributions and investment earnings tax-deferred. You pay income taxes on the funds only when you take them out.

IRAs typically offer more investment options than 401(k)s. A rollover IRA may be ideal if you want to access a broader selection of choices, including stocks, bonds, certificates of deposit and exchange-traded funds.

When IRA account holders withdraw money before age 59½, the taxable portion is usually subject to a 10% early distribution penalty. The same penalty generally applies to 401(k)s. However, IRAs offer certain exceptions that 401(k)s don't, such as for qualified higher education expenses and first-time homebuyers.

Roll over into a Roth IRA

Roth IRAs feature many of the same rules as traditional IRAs. One importance difference, however, is that Roth IRA contributions are made on an after-tax basis. 

If you want to move your money from a 401(k) into a Roth IRA, you'll pay taxes on the money you're transferring, and it will raise your taxable income for that year. However, you won't pay taxes when you withdraw your funds after age 59½. If you're rolling over from a Roth 401(k), you won't pay taxes on your contributions because you already did so upfront. Roth IRAs are good vehicles to consider if you think you're in a lower tax bracket today than you will be in the future.

Keep your 401(k) with your former employer

You may be able to leave your 401(k) right where it is if your account balance is above your plan's designated threshold. However, the plan's trustee may force you out depending on how much you've saved.

You won't be able to contribute to the account, and you may not be able to borrow from it. In addition, the account will be another nest egg to keep an eye on.

How to do a 401(k) Rollover

If you decide to move your 401(k) into a new employer's plan or into an IRA, it's best to choose a direct rollover. With this type of rollover, the trustee of your old plan will help you move the funds to your new plan or IRA by sending you a check, facilitating a direct transfer or another method. There may be steps you need to take to complete the transfer of funds, so be sure to check the trustee's instructions carefully. You'll also owe taxes on the balance if you're switching to a Roth IRA.

Don't ask the trustee to send the money in a check payable to you. This would be considered an indirect rollover, and the plan's trustee would be required to withhold 20% of the distribution for taxes. 

However, if you've already received the check, there's a way to avoid the early withdrawal penalty and get your money back when you file your tax return. Simply deposit your distribution into your new account within 60 days of receiving it and replace the amount that was withheld.

As with all decisions regarding such important assets as retirement savings, deciding what to do with your 401(k) requires careful consideration and research. Be sure to compare the fees of your current 401(k), your new employer's plan and a potential 401(k) rollover or IRA. A financial advisor can help you sort through the complexities and find the best strategy for you.

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