Cleaning House: What To Do With An Old 401k

There is no shame in owning multiple 401(k) or 403(b) accounts—the fact that they exist indicates a commitment to retirement saving. What may bring on a twinge of guilt (and rightfully so) is the neglect of these accounts, such as ignoring how the money is invested and leaving quarterly statements unopened.

Sound familiar? Rest assured that you’re not alone. When leaving an employer many people opt to take the easy way out and check the box next to “no change, leave funds in current 401(k).” Then they go on to their next job and forget about it. For some, this may be the best option, but for many, it’s not.

When is it a good idea to leave your 401(k) with your old employer?

  • If you have a small balance (usually less than $20,000–$25,000), otherwise you’ll pay a custodian (bank or brokerage) an annual maintenance fee to hold the account.
  • If you like the investment options available to you and don’t have the time or inclination to investigate the best place to invest outside the 401(k).

In other situations, it makes more financial sense to choose one of the other options available to you:

1.   Rollover the 401(k) to a self-directed IRA (either a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA) in an account at a new custodian. You can then manage it yourself or with the help of a financial advisor.

2.   Rollover the 401(k) into your new employer’s 401(k) if there are decent investment options available, you have a small balance, or you don’t want to manage it yourself.

There is a fourth option: cash out and pay tax and penalties (with some exceptions) on the balance. However, this is just not a smart choice for most people.

There are many advantages to rolling over to a self-directed IRA:

  • Gives you more investment options, including exchange-traded funds and stocks.
  • Possibly reduces record-keeping and other account maintenance fees.
  • Reduces the number of investment statements you receive.
  • Makes is easier to maintain an asset allocation and periodically rebalance the portfolio.
  • Reduces the chances of duplication in your portfolio.
  • Decreases the possibility that you will “forget” about your money.

Here are the steps you need to take to rollover your old 401(k) into an IRA:

  • Contact the plan administrator at your previous employer company and ask to be sent an IRA rollover form. Be sure to check the boxes for no tax withholding; because you are planning to roll the funds over, there will be no tax consequences. Some companies will conduct a trustee-to-trustee transfer, which means you won’t have to handle the money, but most send checks.
  • Open a new IRA account at your chosen custodian. If you can do a trustee-to-trustee transfer, you will fill in the new IRA account custodian and account number on the form. Otherwise, after you receive the check, it must be deposited in the new IRA account within 60 days so as not to trigger a taxable event.

Once the funds are in your new IRA, you will need to invest them. That’s when the next challenge begins.

About the author

Cathy Curtis, CFP®

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