4 options for your 401(K) when you're changing jobs

Last updated: January 1

If you participate in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you'll have to decide what to do with your account when you change jobs. You may have a few options:

  • Keep it with your former employer's plan
  • Move it to your new company's plan
  • Roll it into an individual retirement account (IRA)
  • Cash it out

Here are a few considerations to help you decide which option is best for you.

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Keep it with your former employer

You may be able to keep your 401(k) with your old employer's plan, says the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an independent regulator for U.S. securities firms. You won't be able to make new contributions to the plan (or receive a company match), but you may want to keep the plan if it has provided strong returns with reasonable fees, the agency says. However, the details on whether you qualify to stay on the plan, and how the plan will function once you leave the company, will vary, so talk with the plan's administrator before you decide. A perk of this option: You can still move your money to a 401(k) or another type of tax-deferred account at a later time, according to FINRA.

Roll it over to an IRA

You may want to consider moving your money into a tax-deferred account like an IRA. You can ask your old plan's administrator to do a "direct rollover," transferring funds directly into an IRA for you. Or, you can do it yourself and have the funds paid out to you (what's known as an "indirect" rollover). If you choose the latter, your old company will be required to withhold 20 percent and you'll only have 60 days to get the funds into an IRA, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If you complete the rollover within the set time period (and with the full balance of your original 401(k)), you can recover the 20 percent when you file your taxes for the year, says FINRA.

Move it to your new job

You may choose to transfer your old 401(k) to your new company's plan. Moving your 401(k) to your new company's plan allows you to consolidate your retirement funds into a single account, making it easier to track your assets, according to FINRA. You'll likely want to consider a direct rollover from your old 401(k) to the new plan. You'll need to work with the administrators of each plan to properly transfer funds. Otherwise, if you decide to do an indirect rollover, your fund could be subject to a 20 percent withholding, and an additional 10 percent federal tax if you do not deposit your funds into the new account within 60 days, according to FINRA.

Cash it out

While this option may seem simplest — you ask your plan administrator to write you a check for the amount in your 401(k) — it's also the least appealing. That's because you'll not only be cashing out money you had designated for retirement, you'll also be taking a big tax hit on the funds. Your plan administrator will have to withhold 20 percent as an "early tax payment," and, depending on your age, you may also face a 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty from the IRS, and additional taxes from federal, state and local authorities, says FINRA. Bottom line: You may end up with a lot less money than you expect.