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Changing Jobs? Don't Forget About Your 401(K) Plan

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  • You may have options for how to handle the retirement savings you accumulated at your former employer, depending on your situation.
  • Sometimes, the decision is made for you if you don't take action.
  • Here are some tips for evaluating how to handle the 401(k) plan from your old job.

When you get a new job, there may be a lot of things you want to forget entirely about your former employer.

Just be sure your 401(k) plan isn't one of them.

While you may have options for how to handle that retirement savings, there are situations when the decision is made for you if you don't take action — and it may not be in your best interest.

"It's best to take care of this in the first couple months of that transition to a new job," said Haley Tolitsky, a certified financial planner at Cooke Capital in Wilmington, North Carolina.

As part of the so-called Great Resignation, workers have quit their jobs at near-record levels in search of better opportunities in a tight labor market. With the unemployment rate at 3.6%, companies have had to compete for talent by either raising wages or expanding their hiring pool.

Nearly 4.4 million Americans quit their jobs in February, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Labor. That's about 100,000 more than in January and close to the 4.5 million record set in November. 

While not everyone has a 401(k) plan or similar workplace retirement plan, those who do should know what happens to their account when they leave a job and what the options are — and aren't.

Here's what to know.

Leave the money or move it?

One thing you can do is leave your retirement savings in your former employer's plan, if it's permitted. Of course, you can no longer contribute to the plan or receive any employer contribution.

However, while this might be the easiest immediate choice if it's available, it could lead to more work in the future.

Basically, finding old 401(k) accounts can be tricky if you lose track of them. There is, incidentally, pending legislation in Congress that would create a "lost and found" database to make locating lost accounts easier.

"It's really common," Tolitsky said. "People switch to a new job, they have life changes going on, they forget about it and then 10 years later they aren't even sure who [the 401(k)] was with or who the provider was."

Also be aware that if your balance is low enough, the plan might not let you remain in it even if you want to. If the balance is less than $1,000, your plan can cash you out — which can lead to a tax bill and a penalty.

"If you can avoid it, you don't want to cash out your 401(k)," said Kathryn Hauer, a CFP with Wilson David Investment Advisors in Aiken, South Carolina. "Doing so with a traditional 401(k) means you'll probably pay a 10% tax penalty."

Your other option is to transfer the balance to another qualified retirement plan. That could include a 401(k) at your new employer — assuming the plan allows it — or a rollover individual retirement account.

Be aware that if you have a Roth 401(k), it can only be transferred to another Roth account. This type of 401(k) and IRA involves after-tax contributions, meaning you don't get a tax break up front as you do with traditional 401(k) plans and IRAs.

However, the Roth money grows tax-free and is untaxed when you make qualified withdrawals down the road.

Also, while any money you put in your 401(k) is always yours, the same can't be said of employer contributions.

Vesting schedules — the length of time you must stay at a company for its matching contributions to be 100% yours — range from immediately to up to six years. Any unvested amounts generally are forfeited when you leave your company.

Outstanding loans

Among 401(k) plans that allow participants to borrow money, about 13% of savers had a loan against their account in 2020 with an average $10,400 owed, according to Vanguard research

If you leave your job and haven't paid off those borrowed funds, there's a good chance your plan will require you to repay the remaining balance fairly quickly; otherwise, your account balance will be reduced by the amount owed and considered a distribution.

In simple terms, unless you are able to come up with that amount and put it in a qualifying retirement account, it is considered a distribution that may be taxable. And, if you are under age 55 when you leave the job, you'll pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Workers who leave their company when they reach that age are subject to special withdrawal rules for 401(k) plans — more on that below.

If it is initially considered a distribution, you get until Tax Day the following year to replace the loan amount — i.e., if you were to leave in 2022, you get until April 15, 2023, to come up with the funds (or Oct. 15, 2023, if you file an extension). Before major tax law changes that took effect in 2018, participants had only 60 days.

About a third of employer plans allow former employees to continue paying the loan after they leave the company, according to Vanguard. This makes it worthwhile to check your plan's policy.

Reasons to pause

There's something called the Rule of 55: If you leave your job in or after the year you turn 55, you can take penalty-free distributions from your current 401(k).

If you move the money to an IRA, you generally lose the ability to tap the money before age 59½ without paying a penalty.

Additionally, if you are the spouse of someone who plans to roll over their 401(k) balance to an IRA, be aware that you would lose the right to be the sole heir to that money. With the workplace plan, the beneficiary must be you, the spouse, unless you sign a waiver allowing it to be someone else.

Once the money lands in the rollover IRA, the account owner can name anyone a beneficiary without their spouse's consent.

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