Whenever you change jobs, you have several options with your 401(k) plan account. You can cash it out, leave it where it is, transfer it into your new employer’s 401(k) plan (if one exists), or roll it over into an individual retirement account (IRA).
Which option should you choose? Forget about cashing it out – taxes and other penalties are likely to be huge. For most people rolling over a 401(k) – or its 403(b) cousin, for those in the public or nonprofit sector – into an IRA is the best choice. Here are seven reasons why.
Note: These reasons assume that you are not on the verge of retirement or an age when you must start taking Required Minimum Distributions from a plan. It also presumes that your account is worth more than $5,000. Most 401(k) plan rules state that if you have less than $1,000 in your account, an employer is automatically allowed to cash it out and give it to you; and if you have between $1,000 and $5,000, your employer is allowed to put it in an IRA.
More Investment Choices
Your 401(k) is limited to a few planets in the investment universe; in all likelihood, you have the choice of a few mutual funds – mostly equity funds – and that's it. However, with an IRA, most types of investment are available to you – not just mutual funds, but also individual stocks, bonds and bond funds, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs), to name just a few.
“IRAs open a larger universe of investment choices,” says Russ Blahetka, CFP, founder and managing director of Vestnomics Wealth Management, LLC, in Campbell, Calif. “Most 401(k) plans do not allow the use of risk management, such as options, but IRAs do. It is even possible to hold income-producing real estate in your IRA.”
You can also buy and sell your holdings anytime you want. Most 401(k) plans limit the number of times per year you can rebalance your portfolio, as the pros put it, or restrict you to certain times of the year.
If you leave your account with your old employer, you might be treated as a second-class citizen – not deliberately, but it just might be harder to get communications regarding the plans (often news is distributed through company email) or get in touch with an advisor or administrator.
And having ready access to information is extra important in the unlikely event something goes south at your old workplace. “I have a client whose former employer went into bankruptcy. His 401(k) was frozen for three years since the court needed to make sure there was no monkey business there," says Michael Zhuang, principal of MZ Capital Management in Bethesda, Md. "During [that time] my client had no access, and he was constantly worried about losing his retirement fund.”
The Roth Option
An IRA rollover opens up the possibility of a Roth account. (There are Roth 401(k)s, but they remain rare.) With Roth IRAs, you pay taxes on the funds you contribute when you contribute them, but then there is no tax due when you withdraw them (the opposite of a traditional IRA). Nor do you have to take required minimum distributions at age 70½, or indeed ever, from a Roth IRA. If you believe you will be in a higher tax bracket or tax rates will be generally higher when you start needing your IRA money, a Roth might be in your best interest. If you're under age 59, it's also a lot easier to withdraw funds from a Roth IRA than from a traditional one – no early-withdrawal penalties, in most cases.
(Note: Your 401(k) plan administrator may only permit rollovers to a traditional IRA. If so, you'll have to do that and then convert it to a Roth.)
Brokers are eager for your business. To entice you to bring your retirement money to their company, they may throw some cash your way. TD Ameritrade, for example, offers bonuses ranging from $100 to $2,500 when you roll over your 401(k) to one of its IRAs, depending on the amount you have to invest. If it’s not cash, free trades could be part of the package.
If you'd like to check out some of the more highly rated firms that handle IRAs, Investopedia offers a list of the best brokers for IRAs.
Understanding your 401(k) is no easy task because each company has a lot of leeway in how they set up the plan. In contrast, IRA regulations are standardized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). An IRA with one broker follows most of the same rules as with any other broker.
Estate Planning Advantages
Upon your death, there’s a good chance that your 401(k) will be paid in one lump sum to your beneficiary, which could cause income and inheritance tax headaches. It varies depending on the particular plan, but most companies prefer to distribute the cash fast, so they don't have to maintain the account of an employee who is no longer there. Inheriting IRAs has its regulations too, but IRAs offer more payout options. Again, it comes down to control.
Lower Fees and Costs
You'd have to crunch the numbers on this one, but rolling over into an IRA could save you a lot in management fees, administrative fees and fund expense ratios – all those little costs that can eat into investment returns over time. The funds offered by the 401(k) plan may be more expensive than the norm for their asset class. And then there's the overall annual fee the plan administrator charges.
“Investors should be careful about transaction costs associated with buying certain investments and the expense ratios, 12b-1 fees or loads associated with mutual funds. All of these can easily be in excess of 1% of total assets per year,” says Mark Hebner, founder, and president of Index Fund Advisors, Inc., in Irvine, Calif., and author of Index Funds: The 12-Step Recovery Program for Active Investors.
Admittedly, the opposite could be true: The bigger 401(k) plans that have millions to invest have access to institutional-class funds that charge lower fees than their retail counterparts. And of course, your IRA won't be free of fees either. But again, you'll have more choices, and more control, over how you'll invest, where you'll invest – and so, what you'll pay.
The Bottom Line
For most people switching jobs, there are many advantages to rolling over a 401(k) into an IRA. That being said, a lot depends on the specifics of the 401(k) plan, both the old employer's and the new one: investment options, fees, loan provisions, etc. and how these terms and features compare to those offered in an IRA you could establish with a brokerage or bank.
You could also have the best of both worlds. You don’t have to roll all of your money into an IRA. Some of your balance can remain in your former company's 401(k) if you’re happy with the returns you’re receiving. You can then set up a new IRA or roll over the remainder into an existing account or a new rollover IRA. After you've done your rollover, you can contribute to both your new company's 401(k) and an IRA (Roth versions, too) as long as you don’t go over your annual contribution limit.