Blog Article

What Should I Do With My Old 401(k)? [Updated April 2024]

Tyler Bartlett

By Tyler Bartlett, Director of Wealth Management AEP®, AIF®, AWMA®, ChFC®, CFP®
Published On 04/29/2024

Whether you are part of a recent layoff or are giving your two weeks’ notice, life can be stressful during a job transition. Moving on can be bittersweet as you gather your personal items and turn over keys, ID badges, or a laptop while saying goodbye to co-workers and friends as you head into the next chapter of your life.

If you have been recently laid off, life is probably a bit more stressful as you may not have the next job already lined up. You may be fearful and anxious as many major employers, particularly in the tech industry, are currently announcing planned layoffs and/or are in a hiring freeze. However, this may be an opportunity to take a long overdue vacation or a brief sabbatical—or even try your hand at something new.

Whether you chose to make this change or it was forced upon you, transitioning between jobs is a busy and often confusing time. It may be tempting to delay (and even easier to completely overlook) one of the most important decisions about your financial life: What should you do with your old 401(k)?


Best Strategies for Managing Your 401(k) During a Job Transition

When it comes to changing jobs and what to do with your old 401(k) account, you have many options available to you.

Option 1: Leaving Your 401(k) Where It Is

One option is to maintain the status quo and leave the account with the old employer (if plan rules allow you to do so). However, you should avoid leaving a trail of “orphaned” 401(k) accounts in the wake of your professional career. Having orphaned accounts can limit your ability to stay present within those investments and make administrative updates.

Option 2: Cashing Out Your 401(k)

You could also cash out the balance, which typically would not be recommended unless your financial circumstances make it an attractive option. Cashing out a 401(k) plan triggers a taxable event and potentially causes you to pay penalties for early withdrawal.

Option 3: Rolling Your 401(k) into an IRA

Alternatively, you could roll the old 401(k) balance into a traditional IRA, enjoy a greater range of investment options, and potentially save on fees. If you go this route, you will need to make important decisions about what kind of account to open, how hands-on you want to be, and which brokerage firm will handle your account.

Option 4: Roll Your Old 401(k) into Your New 401(k)

You might also consider rolling the old 401(k) into your new 401(k) plan if that is allowed per the plan rules.

We will now explore each option in more detail and look at additional reasons for considering one option over another, given your specific situation and desired outcome.


How to Evaluate Your New 401(k) Plan

With all that is happening now, you may not feel like you have much time or energy to do anything with your old 401(k). At a minimum, you will want to look at your plan to compare the investment options available to you, along with the associated fees. You may choose to leave everything in your old plan if you have a good selection of low-cost investment options that span all the major asset classes like US Large Cap Stocks, US Value Stocks, US Small Cap Stocks, Real Estate, International Large Cap Stocks, International Value Stocks, International Small Cap Stocks, Emerging Markets, High-quality Short-term Bonds, High-quality Intermediate-term Bonds, and Treasury Inflation-protected Securities.

Some plans may even offer access to asset classes unavailable in your new 401(k) or a Rollover IRA. For example, Boeing has access to a Stable Value Fund, TIAA has access to a unique private real estate portfolio, and Amazon has access to a lower-cost Vanguard Institutional Index fund.

If you are between 55 and 59 and are planning to take a sabbatical or retire, you may want to review the details of your former 401(k) plan, as you might be able to access the funds penalty-free.

Most employer-sponsored retirement plans, such as a 401(k), qualify under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) and are generally protected from creditors, bankruptcy proceedings, and civil lawsuits. Depending on the state in which you live, an IRA or other non-ERISA plan may or may not be protected from creditors. If you are at risk of creditors pursuing you, you will want to seek legal counsel from an attorney who understands the nuances of your state, as the laws can be quite complex.

If your former employer was a publicly traded company and you own company stock in your old 401(k) plan, you have another item to consider. The net unrealized appreciation (NUA) of your company stock is the difference between your cost basis (or what you paid for the stock) and its current market value. Under the current NUA rules, employees can roll over the portion of their 401(k) invested in company stock to a brokerage account (not a retirement account) and pay tax at long-term capital gains tax rates rather than ordinary income rates when the shares are sold. It does not always make sense to use this strategy or to keep employer stock in your retirement plan, so you will need to weigh the pros and cons carefully.

The Problem of Ignoring Old 401(k)s

Inertia may seem like the easy choice. However, you might be surprised to find out that doing nothing may still require work on your part.

Remembering your old 401(k) account looks easy enough when you have just changed jobs. But if this is your default solution every time you change jobs, then you may be leaving a slew of orphaned 401(k) accounts in several companies over your career. A decade or two later, it may be difficult to remember where those accounts are—or that they even exist.

You will also need to monitor any changes to the investment lineup and cost structure within the old plan. It is important to note that your will or trust does not govern employer-sponsored retirement plans like a 401(k), and you will need to update your beneficiaries in the event of a marriage, divorce, or other major life events to ensure your 401(k) is inherited by the individual(s) you desire.

Understand the Fees and Costs of 401(k)s

Finally, you will want to take a deeper dive beyond the basic fees for your 401(k) investments to consider how much it will cost you to keep your funds where they are. Most 401(k) plans have three basic types of fees: administrative, individual, and investment fees. The investment fee is how much it costs to invest in a fund. If your old plan doesn’t offer index funds, you’ll almost certainly pay higher investment fees. The administrative fee covers various costs of running the plan. These include statement processing fees, web hosting fees, and customer service fees. In some cases, there may be “hidden” fees, such as wrap fees or revenue-sharing arrangements. The individual fees, such as withdrawal fees or loan processing fees, apply to special plan features that a participant may opt to use.


Pros and Cons of Different 401(k) Strategies

Most investment accounts have fees associated with them. Your task is to ensure that you are getting a fair level of investment management service in exchange for the fees you pay. Some 401(k) plans are more competitively priced than others, so you will need to review the details of your situation and a few alternatives before making a smart choice.

Do Nothing – Leave Your 401(k) Where It Is

Possible Advantages:

  • Doesn’t require any effort or time at the moment
  • Retirement savings continue to grow tax-deferred
  • Might have unique or lower-cost investment options
  • Potential for penalty-free withdrawals after age 55
  • Enhanced protection from creditors
  • Might have special tax treatment for company stock

Possible Disadvantages:

  • Must stay engaged with any changes within the plan
  • Lack of full transparency for all fees
  • Limited investment options
  • Remember to update beneficiaries
  • Multiple sites to log into and statements to organize

Let’s start with a tiny bit of good news. The most obvious (and possibly the only) benefit of taking a full distribution from your old 401(k) plan is getting your money immediately. If you are in dire financial straits with no other options, this may be something to consider. However, that distribution will come with a price tag.

If your account holds pre-tax money, the IRS will treat the distribution as taxable income. You will potentially owe federal and state income tax on your distribution. Keep in mind that depending on your taxable income in relation to tax income brackets, a cash-out distribution may push you into a higher tax bracket, which means that a portion of your income for the year will be taxed at a higher rate.

If paying income taxes on your distribution isn’t punishment enough, in most cases, you may also have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are under 59½. Unless you have specific plans for how you will use this money, remember that you will receive less than the total account balance after accounting for income taxes and penalties. There are a few exceptions that may allow you to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

If you change your mind about the cash-out, you have 60 days to deposit the distribution into another qualified plan or a traditional IRA. This is called an “indirect rollover.” Within 60 days, you will need to deposit the cash you received plus any taxes that were withheld into a qualified retirement account. You can only do an indirect rollover once every 12 months.

Send Me the Money – Cash Out Your Old 401(k)

Possible Advantages:

  • Might need the cash if you’re facing extraordinary financial needs
  • Potential for penalty-free withdrawals after age 55

Possible Disadvantages:

  • Subject to federal tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty
  • Your money is no longer growing tax-deferred
  • Might severely impact your ability to retire

If you don’t want to cash out and potentially face a tax bill but also don’t like the thought of being tethered to your former company, one option is to do a direct rollover from your old 401(k) to a traditional IRA.

IRAs generally offer far more investment options than a typical 401(k) plan. With an IRA, you may get access to many more mutual funds than you would have in a 401(k) plan. You may also invest in individual stocks and bonds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and certificates of deposit (CDs). Depending on your investment preferences and goals, that degree of flexibility can potentially make a difference.

As you look at IRA fees, keep in mind that some custodians have asset-based fees (meaning you pay a percentage of the amount of money in your IRA), while other custodians have transaction-based fees, which you incur each time you buy or sell investments. Some investment options may have no additional trading or transaction fees. Be sure to read the fine print and estimate what a typical annual fee on an account with your size and activity would look like.

In general, assets in your IRA have some protection if you file for bankruptcy, but they are not necessarily protected from creditors. Whether or not your IRA offers creditor protection depends on your state of residence. Research your residency state for more details and seek legal counsel from an attorney who understands the nuances of your state, as the laws can be rather complex.

I Desire Control – Roll Your Old 401(k) into a Traditional IRA

Possible Advantages:

  • Retirement savings continue to grow tax-deferred
  • Wider range of investment options available
  • Consolidation of retirement plans
  • Greater control and visibility of the fees you are paying
  • Possibly lower expenses than your 401(k)

Possible Disadvantages:

  • Possibly higher expenses than your 401(k)
  • May lose special tax benefits on company stock

If your new employer offers a 401(k) plan that accepts direct rollovers from other 401(k) plans, you may opt to take this route. But be sure to ask the question first, as not all plans accept rollovers.

The main benefit of choosing this option is that it will reduce administrative hassle for you. All your employer-sponsored retirement plan assets will be in a single account. That means less paperwork, fewer statements, fewer passwords, and fewer investment options to align. It will also make it easier to maintain proper beneficiaries.

The option to roll your old 401(k) into your new 401(k) gives you the benefit of simplicity. Instead of updating investments or risk preferences in multiple accounts, you can do it in one account.

However, that only works if you are satisfied with your investment choices. Research whether your new 401(k) offers investment options that you find attractive. Many employers offer excellent choices inside their 401(k) plans, while others do not. Perhaps you want the ease and low cost of investing in index funds, but your new plan only offers mutual funds that are run by a portfolio manager. Or maybe you find the plan rules to be too restrictive for your liking.

Keep It Simple – Roll Your Old 401(k) into Your New 401(k)

Possible Advantages:

  • Retirement savings continue to grow tax-deferred
  • Consolidation of retirement plans
  • Might have unique or lower-cost investment options
  • Potential for penalty-free withdrawals after age 55
  • Enhanced protection from creditors
  • Might be able to borrow against the new plan

Possible Disadvantages:

  • Must stay engaged with any changes within the plan
  • Lack of full transparency for all fees
  • Limited investment options

There is no one-size-fits-all path for what to do with your old 401(k). Choose what best fits your financial goals and resources. Your decision should also account for how hands-on (or hands-off) you wish to be in your investing, how much time you are willing to dedicate to reviewing your accounts and making course-correcting decisions, and how much you research the investment vehicles available in each plan or account.

At the end of the day, any of these options may be right for you. What’s most important is that you make a strategic choice about what to do—and that you complete the rollover correctly to avoid unnecessary taxes.

If you have additional questions or if you would like help with keeping your retirement savings on track through your job and life changes, reach out and schedule some time with one of our advisors today!





Disclosure: All opinions expressed in this article are for general informational purposes and constitute the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of the report. These opinions are subject to change without notice and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual or on any specific security. The material has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source.  Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be taken as such. To determine which investments may be appropriate for you, consult your financial advisor prior to investing. As always please remember investing involves risk and possible loss of principal capital and past performance does not guarantee future returns; please seek advice from a licensed professional.

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Tyler Bartlett

By Tyler Bartlett, Director of Wealth Management AEP®, AIF®, AWMA®, ChFC®, CFP®

Tyler has been working as an advisor for over 20 years and now serves as our Director of Wealth Management, ensuring our team of advisors has the guidance and support to provide the best possible service for our clients. As someone who knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find the help you need during challenging times, his goal is for Merriman to be your trusted partner.

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