Protecting Your 401K

If you’re changing employers, one of the many transitions you’ll face is what to do with the money you’ve accumulated in your 401(k). Making the right choice can keep you on track for a financially secure retirement, but making the wrong choice can wind up costing you plenty. Let’s take a look at your options.

Cashing Out

Unless you’re facing a financial emergency that leaves you no other option, it’s usually a bad idea to cash out your 401(k). Why? For starters, tapping your retirement funds early accelerates tax liability and can subject you to stiff penalties.

You’ll owe federal income taxes – and, depending on where you live, maybe state and local income taxes as well – on any cash you withdraw, as well as an additional federal penalty of 10% if you’re younger than age 59 . (One exception: If you’re older than age 55 when you leave your job, you may be exempt from this penalty. Ask your tax adviser.) Bear in mind that your employer also is generally required to withhold 20% of your distribution as a down payment on your federal income tax bill.

In addition, by withdrawing funds you’ll not only reduce the size of your nest egg but also lose its tax-deferred growth potential. The combined effect of significant tax penalties and lost appreciation potential can be enormous.

Leaving Your 401(k) or Other Qualified Plan Account Alone

As long as your account has at least $5,000 in it, by law you can’t be forced out of the plan, and your simplest option may be to do nothing and maintain your existing qualified-plan account.

There can be many reasons to choose this option. For example, your old plan may offer a particularly good lineup of investment choices. Or perhaps your new employer’s plan is significantly inferior to your current one, or restricts eligibility for participation to employees with at least one year of service.

Whatever the reason, if you’re happy with your old 401(k) account, you may not want to change a thing.

Rolling Your Account Over

Although you can keep your old 401(k) account active, you won’t be able to make additional contributions to it after you switch jobs. If you wish to streamline the number of accounts you own, consider rolling over your 401(k) savings into your new employer’s 401(k) plan – or into an IRA.

Which is better? It depends on your particular needs. Even though there aren’t major differences between the two options, both have their benefits and drawbacks.

If you’re planning to participate in your new employer’s 401(k) and you don’t already have an IRA, rolling over to the new 401(k) may be the more streamlined option because you’ll have only one account to keep track of.

But an IRA offers an important advantage: It can provide you with more flexibility. If you want to own a specific mutual fund or security in your retirement account, you can find an IRA custodian that will allow you to do so.

A 401(k), by contrast, limits you to the options your employer chooses to make available to you. Some plans offer a broadly diversified collection of strong-performing funds. Others are limited to only a few funds with middling track records. If you’re not sure about the quality of your new plan, your financial adviser can help you evaluate it.

Keep in mind that IRAs can have their downsides, too. For one, they typically charge investors modest administrative fees, while employers typically pick up the costs involved with a 401(k) plan. Also, IRAs can’t allow loans, while some 401(k) plans do. (Ask your 401(k) administrator about the specific benefits available to you.) On the other hand, IRAs offer more opportunities for penalty-free withdrawals before age 59 .

Go Direct

Whichever option you choose, a direct rollover is usually best. For instance, a rollover IRA into platinum or any other precious metal for that matter could act as an inflation hedge. With a direct rollover, you never take formal possession of your funds. The administrator of your old 401(k) plan transfers your assets directly to your new 401(k) administrator or IRA custodian. In some cases, the check will first be sent to you to hand over to your new administrator. As long as the check isn’t made out to you personally, this is still considered a direct rollover.

An indirect rollover is when you take personal possession of your assets before ultimately rolling them over. In this case, if you don’t redeposit the funds within 60 days, it’s considered a distribution, and you’ll owe income taxes and, generally, an additional 10% early-withdrawal penalty.

Your former employer also will be required to withhold 20% of your account value for federal income taxes, even though you’re then doing a tax-free rollover. Generally, this option doesn’t make sense. If you wind up having withholding, don’t forget to replace this amount when you roll over the funds within 60 days to avoid additional taxes and penalties.

Keep Saving

The good news is that changing jobs doesn’t have to mean interrupting your retirement savings plan. Avoid the expensive trap of cashing out your 401(k), and you can continue to make progress toward your long-term financial goals.

Presented by John Steiger, ChFC, AEP Certified Financial Planner

At Cleary, we are committed to a holistic approach of protecting and preserving our clients’ financial assets. Give us a call today at 617-723-0700 and let us know how we can help you.