5 Benefits of Rolling Over a 401(k)

December 20, 2016 — 2:11 PM EST

Maybe you’re getting close to retirement or you’ve changed jobs. If you have a 401(k), you’re faced with an important decision: Do you keep it where it is or roll it into an individual retirement account (IRA)? (You also could roll it into a 401(k) offered by your next employer; more on that, below.) There are pros and cons for each decision, but here are five reasons why you may want to roll your 401(k) into an IRA.

1. Fewer Confusing Rules

The problem with 401(k)s is that they lack standardization. That means your 401(k) could function in a way that's entirely different from that of your neighbor, who works for another company. Even if you’re well-schooled in finance and investing, understanding your 401(k) will require reading a lot of fine-print legalese. (To learn more about the downsides, see 6 Problems With 401k Plans.)

IRAs are largely standardized. Instead of your employer making the rules, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) does it. You won’t find many people who say the IRS is good at making things simple, but learning and understanding the rules of an IRA is easier than understanding a 401(k).

2. More Control

If you’ve done any research into 401(k)s, you know that there are both good and bad 401(k)s. Because your employer is charged with setting up the 401(k), a multitude of factors come together to create a plan that's good – or one that has challenges. These can include the fees, the way the money is managed and the services that you have to pay for. By rolling your 401(k) into an IRA, you have more control over these specific factors. And since your employer only matches contributions from your current salary, moving funds from a previous job will not increase the employer match.

“With a 401(k), you are subject to your employer’s choice of custodian. However, by rolling your 401(k) into an IRA, you are able to choose any custodian that fits with your investment objectives,” says Carlos Dias Jr., wealth manager at Excel Tax & Wealth Group in Lake Mary, Fla.

3. More Choices

There are thousands of investment options available to you as a retail investor, but your 401(k) might only offer a dozen. Which ones you get largely depends on the plan administrator. Those choices may be good, or there may better ways to invest your money. Rolling over your funds to an IRA gives you access to a vast catalog of investment options not offered by your 401(k). An advantage that goes hand in hand with that: “With all the new choices, you can hold the expense ratios down for considerable savings,” says David S. Hunter, CFP®, president of Horizons Wealth Management, Inc., in Asheville, N.C.

4. Estate Planning Options

Upon your death, there’s a good chance that your 401(k) will be liquidated and paid in one lump sum to your beneficiary. If that's the case, when tax time rolls around in April, that person will be hit with a large tax bill. An IRA might allow for other distribution options that occur over time or the option for your beneficiary to roll your IRA into his or her own.

Keep in mind that estate planning around your 401(k) means knowing the rules for that particular plan. It may allow your beneficiary to take distributions for multiple years just as an IRA might. Because estate planning can be difficult, it’s a good idea to get professional help with this.

5. Retirement Funds in One Place

The statistical norms indicate that Americans stay in their jobs for slightly fewer than five years. If you’re like most, that means you could have seven jobs over a 30-year career. And during that career, many of your employers may offer a 401(k). Trying to manage relatively small amounts of money in multiple accounts can be complicated and time consuming; a better option might be to roll all your money from past employers into an IRA.

From a purely managerial perspective, it’s a smart choice. It can also make financial sense, given that investment choices offered through different employers’ 401(k) plans may be more limited than those available through an IRA. (See Should You Roll Over Your 401(k)? for more on your options.)

And down the road, when it comes time to make withdrawals, “required minimum distributions become easier to manage when accounts are combined,” says Russ Blahetka, CFP®, managing director of Vestnomics Wealth Management in Campbell, Calif. “It is also easier to track beneficiary assignments on one account than on multiple accounts.”

The Bottom Line

In finances, as in life, there’s no one right answer for everybody. What could be good reasons for your colleague to roll over his 401(k) to an IRA might be exactly the wrong reasons for you. That’s why you should always speak to an expert – specifically, a fee-only financial advisor – when making money decisions that could affect you and your family.