When you leave a job, there are several loose ends that you will need to tie up. One important consideration when you leave your position is what to do with your employer-sponsored retirement accounts. If you are new to investing or not well-versed in financial matters, you may be wondering what your retirement options are after employment termination. You have a few choices. But, some are better than others. Before you make any major decision, you must evaluate eligibility requirements, know the tax implications, and compare the fees and investment options available to you.
Options for Your Retirement Plans after Employment Termination
1. Leave it where it is.
Depending on how much you have invested in the employer-sponsored 401(k), you may be able to leave your money in the current account. If you have more than $5,000 invested in the old plan, most companies allow you to maintain your retirement account. Even if you are no longer work for the employer, you may be able to leave your money parked in the account.
This will be most beneficial to you if the old plan has low fees, good investment options, or you have a large balance. If you go in this direction, you could always roll it over to a different account in the future as well.
However, if the balance is less than $5,000, your former employer might require you to move it after employment termination. For balances under $1,000, the company could force you out by simply writing a check. But, for balances between $1,000 – $5,000, your former employer must assist you in setting up an IRA if they are forcing you out of their plan.
When considering you retirement options after employment termination, this may not the best one for you. You may want to consider alternatives if you are likely to forget about it, let the account sit dormant, or you are not impressed by the terms. Your former employer’s plan may have more limited options when compared to various IRA offerings or your new employer’s retirement savings program.
2. Roll it over to a plan with your new employer.
Another possibility is to roll over the balance to your new employer’s retirement plan. Most companies will allow new employees to enroll in their retirement savings plan once they have reached the minimum length of employment. It is a fairly simple process, and only requires some paperwork to complete a direct transfer. The administrator of your former plan can deposit the balance of the previous account into your new one.
Rolling your retirement plan into a new one prevents you from paying any taxes on the balance. If you do not want the direct transfer, you can also have your former employer issue a check for the balance. Then, you can deposit the funds yourself. However, you must do so within 60 days. Otherwise, you will pay income tax for the entire lump sum. Before you close the first account, make sure the new 401(k) is set up and able to receive balance transfers.
This option is cost-effective because you can defer taxation. Additionally, you can consolidate your funds into a single account rather than keeping track of several different retirement accounts after employment termination. It also makes things easier down the line for family members or heirs when they need to handle your financial affairs. Just be sure to compare the available options and fees. Once you transfer the balance, you cannot go back to your old plan.
3. Roll it over to an IRA.
If your new employee does not have a retirement plan for its employees or the options are not ideal, you should consider rolling it into an IRA. Whether you choose a traditional or Roth IRA, the account will be in your name. Therefore, you have greater control over the account and can choose any financial institution you like. Since you are not restricted by your employer, you have freedom to decide how and where you invest your money.
There are few restrictions or limitations on these kinds of transfers. Furthermore, both traditional and Roth IRAs provide a wide range of low-cost offerings. Consolidating your investments into a single account also makes them easier to track.
If you go this route, you will have to include the untaxed amount in your gross income for the fiscal year you completed the rollover. But, if you meet certain qualifications, future withdrawals could be tax-free.
4. Begin taking distributions.
If you are nearing retirement age, you may want to begin taking distributions from your accounts. You can begin receiving distributions at age 55. But, you may have to pay the penalty on the taxable portion of it. Most retirement accounts dictate that you must be 59 ½ to receive distributions without the 10% tax penalty on early withdrawals. However, those who retire between the ages of 55 and 59 ½ do not need to pay this penalty.
Many people avoid this option because of the taxation and penalty fees. Moreover, when you begin receiving distributions from a traditional 401(k) you will need to pay income tax. On the other hand, distributions from your IRA will be tax free as long as you meet the age requirements and had the account a minimum of five years.
5. Cash out the balance of the account.
The last resort is to cash out your retirement accounts. However, if you liquidate your retirement accounts early, you will have to pay taxes on the full amount in addition to the 10% penalty. Most financial advisors warn against this because you are depleting your retirement savings. Unless you need the cash now, it is better to leave it in your accounts until the balance and distribution payments are tax-deferred.
Explore Your Retirement Options
Before making any major financial decisions, you should explore all your options. Weigh the pros and cons and determine which route gets you closer to your financial goals. There are many online resources that can help you make informed decisions. However, there is no shame in admitting you need help if you are in over your head. When in doubt, it is always wise to seek professional advice.
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Jenny Smedra is an avid world traveler, ESL teacher, former archaeologist, and freelance writer. Choosing a life abroad had strengthened her commitment to finding ways to bring people together across language and cultural barriers. While most of her time is dedicated to either working with children, she also enjoys good friends, good food, and new adventures.