image of a woman's head with sticky notes on either side representing 401k options

What to do with your 401(k) when you leave your job

Oct 19, 2021
Empower Insights

When you leave a job or retire, you may wonder what to do with your 401(k). And while some things about change can be complicated, figuring out what to do with your 401(k) account doesn’t have to be.

In general, there are four primary options for someone who already has a 401(k) plan through an employer. Let’s take a look at each:

1)    Stay in your current plan

Staying in your current 401(k) plan is sometimes the easiest choice. If you like the features and services of your plan and want to maintain your current investments, then staying put may be the best option for you. Generally, you can leave your money in your plan and retain its tax-deferred status. (This means you don’t pay taxes on that money until you take a distribution).

Considerations: Some plans have mandatory distributions for accounts with a balance of less than $5,000. You should check with your employer’s plan administrator to see if they require mandatory distributions.

2)    Open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Another option is to roll over your funds to an IRA. If you want more investment options than your current plan offers, want to control your investments, or have multiple retirement accounts and want to consolidate your money, this may be the best option for you. Also, by moving your money to an IRA, it remains in tax-deferred status. And if you’re in a lower tax bracket at retirement, you may pay fewer taxes then, too.

Considerations: IRAs have different investment options, costs and advice offerings. It’s important to choose one that fits your preferences (and how involved you’ll want to be in managing your investments). 

image of 4 multi-colored doors, representing 4 options

3)    Move your money to a new employer’s plan

The third way to preserve the tax-deferred benefit of your retirement savings is to transfer the money in your current 401(k) account to a new employer’s plan. If the new plan offers lower-cost investment options and the same or better services and you want to have all your money in one place, this might be the option for you.

Considerations: While most employer plans allow new employees to roll in their accounts, not all do. Also, some plans may have waiting periods, be more expensive or have fewer investment options. It’s important to look into all the costs and services associated with a new employer’s plan.

4)    Cash out

If you have debt or bills — or you’ve just decided you want to use your money now and you’re comfortable paying taxes and early withdrawal penalties — then cashing out may be the best option for you. You could withdraw all your funds, but you can also do a partial withdrawal, leaving some of your savings in your 401(k) account.

Considerations: Cashing out can put you behind on saving for retirement, so it should typically be a last resort. If you’ve made after-tax contributions (in a Roth 401(k), for example), you can typically withdraw these amounts tax-free. However, early distribution penalties may still apply. It’s important to speak with a tax advisor about your specific situation.

No matter the reason, when you leave your job, you have options in deciding what to do with the savings in your 401(k) plan account. But before you make a decision or move money between accounts, it’s a good idea to consider the features and fees of each option and speak with a financial professional. Talking to an Empower Retirement consultant can help make it easier for you to assess the best options for your circumstances. They can also assist you in taking next steps — at no cost to you.

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