When an employee leaves a job due to retirement or termination, the question about whether to roll over a 401(k) or other employer-sponsored plan quickly follows. A 401(k) plan can be left with the original plan sponsor, rolled over into a traditional or Roth IRA, distributed as a lump-sum cash payment, or transferred to the new employer’s 401(k) plan.

Each option for an old 401(k) has advantages and disadvantages, and there is not a single selection that works best for all employees. However, if an employee is considering the option of transferring an old 401(k) plan into a new employer's 401(k), certain steps are necessary.

Key Takeaways

  • In some cases your new employer’s plan may not accept rollovers from another 401(k), so ask the HR department of your new company about this.
  • The biggest advantage in doing a rollover is the simplicity of management afforded by keeping all your funds in one place.
  • The biggest disadvantage in doing a rollover is that your investment options are limited by how the plan is run; you have little say in choosing the asset allocation.

Rolling Over to a New 401(k)

The first step in transferring an old 401(k) to a new employer’s qualified retirement plan is to speak with the new plan sponsor, custodian, or human resources manager who assists employees with enrolling in the 401(k) plan. Because not every employer-sponsored plan accepts transfers from an outside 401(k), it is imperative for a new employee to ask if the option is available from his new employer. If the plan does not accept 401(k) transfers, the employee needs to select one of the three other options for the 401(k) account balance.

If the new employer plan accepts 401(k) transfers from other companies, there is often a substantial amount of paperwork that must be completed by the employee. The paperwork is provided by the new plan sponsor or human resources contact and requires the name, date of birth, address, Social Security number, and other identifying information of the employee wishing to effect a transfer.

In addition, the 401(k) transfer form must provide details of the old employer plan, including total amount to be transferred, investment selections held in the account, date contributions started and stopped, and contribution type, such as pretax or Roth. A new plan sponsor may also require an employee to establish new investment instructions for the account being transferred on the form. Once the transfer form is complete, it is returned to the plan sponsor for processing.

After the new and old plan sponsors both approve the transfer, the old plan sponsor distributes the balance of the 401(k) account to the new plan sponsor in the form of a check. After the check is received, the new plan sponsor deposits the check, and investments are purchased according to the employee’s new plan selections. A transfer from one 401(k) to another is a tax-free transaction, and no early withdrawal penalties are assessed.

Rolling over from one 401(k) to another does not incur any fees, nor does it trigger early withdrawal penalties.

Advantages of Transferring

The biggest advantage of transferring an old 401(k) into a plan with a new employer is ease of management. Instead of tracking investment selections, performance, or statements for multiple accounts, a transfer creates a single account that can be easily monitored. In addition, 401(k) plans typically carry lower fees on investments and transactions than rollover IRAs managed by professional advisors.

Older employees have an additional advantage: Money held in the 401(k) of the company where an employee is currently working is not subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs). If that employee had left the money in their previous employer's plan, they would have had to take RMDs when they reached the age of being subject to that requirement.

Disadvantages of Transferring

Transferring a 401(k) may not be the best choice for every employee, as a number of disadvantages exist. Employer-sponsored plans are limited to a certain number of investment options that can be utilized by employees. These restrictions may not allow plan participants to invest in the exact way they desire and may lead to poor asset allocation or lack of diversification over time.

Additionally, employees who participate in a 401(k) do not have a say in the company or individual who manages the plan. A plan sponsor, along with company owners or executives, has total control over how the plan is established and maintained. The process of transferring a 401(k) to a new plan can also be time-consuming, as the new plan sponsor is tasked with vetting the old plan’s qualified status, hire and termination dates, and total balance eligible for the transfer.

The Bottom Line

The transfer of an old 401(k) plan to a new plan is a great choice for some employees. However, the benefits need to be weighed against the disadvantages before starting the process.