401k Rollover – How to Roll Your 401k Plan into an IRA

A 401k rollover into an IRA gives you more control over your investments. It gives you flexibility and helps you avoid taxes & early withdrawal penalties.
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Changing jobs is always a busy time. You must tie up loose ends at your old job, learn the ropes at your new position, maintain your professional network, and conduct other activities. One thing you shouldn’t stress about is deciding what to do with your 401k plan.

It boils down to 5 primary options:

  1. Cash it out,
  2. Leave your funds in your old 401k plan if able,
  3. Transfer it into your new employer’s 401(k) plan, or
  4. Roll it over into an IRA, or
  5. Roll it over into another tax-deferred retirement plan.

The first option is rarely a good idea as you will have to pay taxes and possibly early withdrawal penalties.

The second option can be a decent idea if you are happy with your old plan and your former company allows you to maintain your assets in their 401k plan (keep in mind some plans charge former employees for the administration costs once they are no longer employed with the parent company so that you may be better off moving your investments).

Finally, the third option allows you to keep your investments in a tax-deferred plan and avoid taxes and early withdrawal penalties. You can transfer your old 401k plan into a new 401k plan at your new company, move it into an annuity, or roll your 401k plan assets into an IRA.

Rolling your 401k into an IRA is often the best option as it allows you total control over where you invest your money, the fees you will pay, etc. Let’s take a look at your options – then show you how to roll over your 401k into an IRA if you decide this is the best option for you.

What Should You Do with Your Old 401k?

We will assume that you won’t cash out your plan, which leaves us with the choice of leaving it with your former employer, rolling it into your new 401k plan, or rolling your 401k into an IRA.

Because your assets stay in a tax-deferred retirement account, the tax rules are essentially the same for all three choices. The main differences boil down to your plan’s rules and investment choices.

1. Cash out your 401(k) plan

Again, this is usually the worst option unless you are experiencing a financial emergency. Just remember that you must pay taxes on any funds withdrawn from a traditional 401k) plan, and you must also pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are under age 59.5.

2. Leave assets in your former employer-sponsored plan

This is usually the easiest option because it takes no effort. Simply pack your bags and move on to your next place of employment. But it is easy doesn’t always mean it is the best decision.

Advantages

  • You may have investment options in the plan that are not available to you outside the plan.
  • No action is required on your part.

Disadvantages

  • Possibly limited investment choices.
  • Most likely cannot make future contributions.
  • You usually need assets totaling $5,000 or more to remain in the former employer’s plan.
  • May have to cover some or all of the administration fees.
  • Having more retirement accounts can make account management and asset allocation more difficult.

3. Transfer to your new employer-sponsored plan

Most employer-sponsored plans will allow you to transfer your assets from your former employer-sponsored plan when you enroll. You only have to fill out a form, and the plan administrators will take care of the rest.

Advantages

  • Account consolidation (easier to maintain record keeping and balance assets).
  • Ability to borrow from your 401k.

Disadvantages

  • Limited investment choices.
  • You may have to wait before you are eligible for the plan at your new company.

4. Roll your 401k into an IRA

Rolling your 401k into an IRA is usually the best option because you can control how and where your money is invested.

Advantages

  • Total investment flexibility; you decide where and how to invest.
  • Account consolidation (easier to maintain record keeping and balance assets).
  • The option of moving your assets to a future employer’s plan.

Disadvantages

  • You can’t borrow from your assets.
  • Some investment options in a 401(k), such as company stock purchasing plans, may not be available in an IRA.

Where to open a Rollover IRA: Rolling over an IRA is very easy to do, and most providers will help you with the paperwork. Here are some of our recommended places to open an IRA.

How to Roll Over a 401k Plan into an IRA

We’re assuming you chose option #3 from the above options. Doing a 401k rollover into an IRA is easy and is a three-step process:

  1. Open an IRA,
  2. Transfer your funds into an IRA via a trustee-to-trustee transfer or an indirect rollover,
  3. Allocate your funds.

The second step is the most important because it can affect your taxes.

Note: These steps are similar for transferring 401(k), 403(b), Thrift Savings Plan, and similar tax-deferred retirement plans.

Step 1. Opening an IRA

The first step is opening an IRA, which only takes a few minutes. All you need to do is open an account with the financial institution if you don’t already have one, sign a form, transfer some funds, then allocate them.

For more information regarding what to look for when opening an IRA, I recommend reading about how and where to open an IRA for some great investment houses and brokerages.

Step 2. Roll Over Your 401k Assets into an IRA

There are two primary 401k rollover options to transfer your assets into an IRA – by a direct or indirect transfer. You can also transfer your money into a conduit IRA, a Traditional IRA set up to hold your old 401(k) assets until you move the money into another qualified retirement plan.

Indirect IRA rollover

With an indirect IRA rollover, you receive a check for the amount of your 401k plan assets. Sometimes the 401k custodian will automatically do a 20% tax withholding.

You then have up to 60 days to deposit the entire amount in your former plan into a tax-deferred retirement account. Otherwise, the amount you don’t deposit will be treated as a withdrawal for tax purposes and may be subject to income taxes and early withdrawal penalties.

That means you need to come up with 20% out of pocket to make up for the amount that was automatically withheld. You will receive a tax refund for the 20% when you file your taxes the following year, but you are on the hook in the meantime.

Thankfully, there is an easier way to roll over your 401k, which avoids any deductions or tax withholdings.

Trustee-to-Trustee Transfer of 401k plan assets

A trustee-to-trustee transfer, or direct transfer, moves your 401k plan assets to another qualified retirement plan without worrying about cashing it out and paying taxes or early withdrawal penalties. This way, you can safely and easily transfer the funds in your account and not worry about coming up with 20%, forgetting to deposit the assets, or making any other mistakes along the way.

The paperwork is easy to fill out, and most banks, brokerages, or investment houses will be happy to do the paperwork for you. Once the paperwork is filled out, your new brokerage will initiate the funds transfer from your old brokerage, and the transfer is made.

Step 3. Allocate Your Funds According to Your Asset Allocation Plan

Most brokerages will allow you to select which funds you wish to invest before transferring your funds from your former 401k plan trustee to your IRA custodian. However, some IRA custodians may just place the money in a money market, or high yield savings account until the transfer has been completed. You must allocate the funds according to your risk tolerance and investment needs.

What to look for with a 401k Rollover into an IRA

  • Rollover contributions do not count toward annual IRA contribution limits. You can still contribute up to the maximum amount allowed based on your age and income.
  • Most Roth 401k plans will automatically roll over into a Roth IRA, and a Traditional 401k plan will roll into a Traditional IRA. You can transfer a traditional IRA into a Roth 401k, but you must pay taxes and meet certain income qualifications. Consult with your broker or a financial planner for more details.
  • All 401k plans must allow you to transfer your funds via a trustee-to-trustee transfer.
  • Verify transfer eligibility, fees, and/or tax considerations before transferring your 401k plan.
  • You may wish to contact a financial planner if you have company stock in an old 401(k) plan.
  • When in doubt, consult with your broker or a certified financial planner before making any financial decisions.

Keep Retirement Funds in a Tax-deferred Retirement Plan!

Whichever option you choose, try to keep your retirement funds in a retirement plan. Cashing out early will subject you to instant tax obligations and early withdrawal fees if you are under the minimum withdrawal age. The taxes and fees can easily destroy more than a third of your hard-earned investments. In addition to taxes and fees, you will set yourself back in your retirement planning. Unless it is an emergency, leave it alone!


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About Ryan Guina

Ryan Guina is The Military Wallet's founder. He is a writer, small business owner, and entrepreneur. He served over six years on active duty in the USAF and is a current member of the Illinois Air National Guard.

Ryan started The Military Wallet in 2007 after separating from active duty military service and has been writing about financial, small business, and military benefits topics since then. He also writes about personal finance and investing at Cash Money Life.

Ryan uses Personal Capital to track and manage his finances. Personal Capital is a free software program that allows him to track his net worth, balance his investment portfolio, track his income and expenses, and much more. You can open a free Personal Capital account here.

Featured In: Ryan's writing has been featured in the following publications: Forbes, Military.com, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, Reserve & National Guard Magazine (print and online editions), Military Influencer Magazine, Cash Money Life, The Military Guide, USAA, Go Banking Rates, and many other publications.

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  1. Peter says

    I am still working and plan to retire in the next 5 years. I want to roll my 401k to an IRA. The firm holding the 401k says I can only move about 1\3 of the funds as long as I am still employed by this company. Is that correct?

    • Ryan Guina says

      Peter, each 401k plan administrator may have different rules. You should be able to request a copy of the plan rules to review. If you can only move 1/3 of the funds while you are employed, then you can move the remainder after you retire. Best wishes!

  2. Sree says

    IRA: Total investment flexibility; you decide where and how to invest.

    Is it really an advantage? I have seen people investing their IRA funds in options and other risky investments. One of my friend invested almost all his IRA monies in “.com” or network companies (like Lucent and Nortel) during late 1990s. IRAs are great flexible retirement accounts but needs some home work from the investor.

    People, please remember Retirement accounts, Life insurance and Primary residence are conservative investments. Please treat them like that.

    • Ryan Guina says

      Sree, the phrase, “with great power comes great responsibility” comes to mind. Total investment flexibility is wonderful if you have the knowledge and discipline to use it to your advantage. But it can cause problems if you don’t know how to use it. The same concept applies to things like credit cards, guns, prescription medication, driving, or anything else that has an element of risk attached to it.

      For someone who is a responsible and conservative investor, having total control can help them better shape their investment portfolio to their risk tolerance level and better control fees and expenses.

  3. Travis says

    Ryan, thanks for the info here; as to be honest with you, I’m very uninformed when it comes to a lot of this stuff. I figure it’s better to educate myself early instead of waiting until it’s too late!

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