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5 Options for Your Retirement Account When Leaving a Job

Not sure what to do with a retirement account from an old employer? Laura covers five options for managing your retirement funds when your job ends. Handling your nest egg the right way is critical for preserving what you've worked so hard to save.

By
Laura Adams, MBA
7-minute read
Episode #652
retirement account
The Quick And Dirty

Once you're no longer employed by a company that sponsors your retirement plan, there are five options for managing your retirement account:

  1. Cash out your account
  2. Maintain your existing account
  3. Rollover to an IRA
  4. Rollover to a new workplace plan
  5. Rollover to an account for the self-employed

One of the most common retirement questions I receive is what to do with a retirement account when leaving a job. Knowing your options for managing a retirement plan with an old employer is essential because most people change jobs many times throughout their careers. And millions of Americans remain out of work during the pandemic.

When you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave.

Fortunately, when you have a workplace retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403(b), you can take your vested balance with you when you leave. It doesn't matter if you quit, get fired, or get laid off, the same rules apply. 

This post will cover five options for managing your retirement account when your employment ends. You'll learn the rules for handling a retirement plan at an old job and the best move to create a secure financial future.

Why should you use a retirement account?

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise because they come with terrific tax advantages. They defer or eliminate the tax on your contributions and investment earnings, which may allow you to accumulate a bigger balance than with a taxable brokerage account.

Investing money using one or more retirement accounts is wise. If you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll!

So, if you have a retirement plan at work but aren't participating in it, now's the time to enroll! Contribute as much as you can, even if it's just a small amount. Make a goal to increase your contribution rate each year until you're putting away at least 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income.

FREE RESOURCE: Retirement Account Comparison Chart (PDF)—a handy one-page download to see the retirement account rules at a glance.

What is a retirement account rollover?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that once you leave a job with a 401(k) or a 403(b) you can't continue getting tax breaks. Doing a rollover allows you to withdraw funds from a retirement plan with an old employer and transfer them to another eligible retirement account.

When you roll over a workplace retirement account, you don't lose your contributions or investment earnings. And if you're vested, you don't lose any money that your employer may have put into your account as matching funds.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process.

The main rule you must follow when doing a retirement rollover is that you must complete it within 60 days once you begin the process. If you miss this deadline and are younger than age 59½, the transaction becomes an early withdrawal. That means it is subject to income tax, plus an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you're a regular Money Girl podcast listener or reader, you know that I don't recommend taking early withdrawals from retirement accounts. Paying income tax and a penalty is expensive and reduces your nest egg.

If you complete a traditional rollover within the allowable 60-day window, you maintain all the funds' tax-deferred status until you make withdrawals in the future. And with a Roth rollover, you retain the tax-free status of your funds.

What are your retirement account options when leaving a job?

Once you're no longer employed by a company that sponsors your retirement plan, there are four options for managing the account. 

1. Cash out your account

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option. As I mentioned, taking an early withdrawal means you must pay income tax and a 10% penalty. 

Cashing out a retirement plan when you leave a job is the easiest option, but it's also the worst option.

Let's say you have a $100,000 account balance that you cash out. If your average rate for federal and state income taxes is 30%, and you have an additional 10% penalty, you lose 40%. Cracking open your $100,000 nest egg could mean only having $60,000 left, depending on how much you earn.

Note that if your retirement plan has a low balance, such as $1,000 or less, the custodian may automatically cash you out. If so, they're required to withhold 20% for taxes (although you may owe more), file Form 1099-R to document the distribution, and pay you the balance. 

2. Maintain your existing account

Most retirement plans allow you to keep money in the account after you're no longer employed if you maintain a minimum balance, such as more than $5,000. If you don't have the minimum, but you have more than the cash-out threshold, the custodian typically has the authority to deposit your money into an IRA in your name.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions because you're not an employee. However, your funds can continue to grow there. You can manage them any way you like by selling or buying investments from a set menu of options.

The downside to leaving money in an old retirement account is that you can't make additional contributions.

Leaving money in an old retirement plan is certainly better than cashing out and paying taxes and a penalty, but it doesn't give you as much flexibility as you you would get with the next two options I'm going to talk about.

I only recommend leaving money in an old employer's retirement plan if you're happy with the investment choices and the fund and account fees are low. Just make sure that the plan doesn't charge you higher fees once you're no longer an active employee.

Another reason you might want to leave retirement money in an old employer's plan is if you're unemployed or have a job that doesn't offer a retirement account. I'll cover some special legal protections you'll get in just a moment.

3. Rollover to an Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA)

Another option for your old workplace retirement plan is to roll it into an existing or new traditional IRA. If you have a Roth 401(k) or 403(b), you can roll it over into a Roth IRA. The deadline to complete an IRA rollover is 60 days.

Your earnings in a traditional IRA would continue to grow tax-deferred, just like in your old workplace plan. And earnings grow tax-free in a Roth IRA, like a Roth account at work. 

Here are a couple of advantages to moving a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Getting more control. You choose the financial institution and the investments for your IRA.  
  • Having more flexibility. With an IRA, there are more ways to tap your funds before age 59½ and avoid an early withdrawal penalty than with a workplace account. That rule applies to several exceptions, including using withdrawals for medical bills, college expenses, and buying or building your first home.

Here are some downsides to rolling over a workplace plan to an IRA:

  • Having fewer legal protections. Depending on your home state, assets in an IRA may not be protected from creditors.  
  • Being ineligible for a Roth IRA. When you're a high earner, you may not be allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA. However, you can still manage the account and have tax-free investment earnings.

If you want more control over your investment choices, think you'll need to make withdrawals before retirement, are self-employed, or don't have a job with a retirement plan to roll your account into, having an IRA is a great option.

4. Rollover to a new workplace plan

If you land a new job with a retirement plan, it may allow a rollover from your old plan once you're eligible to participate. While the IRS allows rollovers into most retirement accounts, employer plans aren't required to accept incoming rollovers. So be sure to check with your new plan administrator about what's possible. 

Once you initiate a transfer from one workplace plan to another, you must complete it within 60 days to avoid taxes and a penalty.

Here are some advantages of doing a workplace-to-workplace rollover:

  • More convenience. Having all your retirement savings in one place may make it easier to manage and track.  
  • Taking early withdrawals. Retirees can begin taking penalty-free withdrawals from workplace plans as early as age 55.  
  • Avoiding Roth income limits. Unlike a Roth IRA, there are no income restrictions for participating in a Roth workplace retirement account.  
  • Getting more legal protections. Workplace retirement plans are covered by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), a federal regulation. It doesn't allow creditors (except the federal government) to touch your account balance.

Some downsides to transferring money from one workplace plan to another include:

  • Having less flexibility. You can't take money out of a 401(k) or a 403(b) until you leave the company or qualify for an allowable hardship. It doesn't come with as many withdrawal exceptions compared to an IRA. 
  • Getting less control. You may have fewer investment choices or higher fees than an IRA, depending on the brokerage firm. 

5. Rollover to an account for the self-employed

If you left a job to become self-employed, having an IRA is a great option. However, there are other types of retirement accounts that you might consider, such as a solo 401(k) or a SEP-IRA, based on whether you have employees and on your business income. 

Read 4 Ways to Start a Retirement Account as a Self-Employed Freelancer or 5 Retirement Options When You're Self-Employed for more information. 

When is a Roth rollover allowed?

For a rollover to be tax-free, you must use a like account. For example, if you have a traditional 403(b), you must rollover to another traditional retirement account at work or to a traditional IRA.

If you move traditional, pre-tax funds into a post-tax, Roth account, you must pay income tax on any amount that wasn't previously taxed. That could leave you with a massive tax liability. If you want a Roth, a better move would be to open a Roth account at your new job or to start a Roth IRA (if your income doesn't make you ineligible to contribute). 

Where should you move an old retirement account?

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want. Other considerations include the quality of your old plan, your income, and whether you have a new job with a retirement plan that accepts rollovers.

The best place for your old retirement account depends on the flexibility and legal protections you want.

The goal is to position your retirement money where you can keep it safe and allow it to grow using low-cost, diversified investment options. If you have questions about doing a rollover, get advice from your retirement plan custodian. They can walk you through the process to make sure you choose the best investments and don't break the rollover rules.

About the Author

Laura Adams, MBA

Laura Adams received an MBA from the University of Florida. She's an award-winning personal finance author, speaker, and consumer advocate who is a frequent, trusted source for the national media. Money-Smart Solopreneur: A Personal Finance System for Freelancers, Entrepreneurs, and Side-Hustlersbook is her newest title. Laura's previous book, Debt-Free Blueprint: How to Get Out of Debt and Build a Financial Life You Love, was an Amazon #1 New Release. Do you have a money question? Call the Money Girl listener line at 302-364-0308. Your question could be featured on the show.