Objective information about retirement, financial planning and investments


401(k) Options When Leaving Your Job


Retirement Funds over Time

Perhaps you are retiring or perhaps you are moving on to another opportunity. Perhaps you were downsized. Whatever the reason, there are many things to do when leaving a job. Don’t neglect your 401(k) plan during this process.

With a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) you typically have several options to consider upon separation.  Here is a discussion of several 401(k) options when leaving your job and the pros and cons of each. Note this is a different issue from the decision that you may be faced with if you have a defined benefit pension plan.

Leaving your money in the old plan 

I’m generally not a fan of this approach. All too often these accounts are neglected and add to what I call “financial clutter,” a collection of investments that have no rhyme or reason to them.

In some larger plans, participants might have access to a solid menu of low cost institutional funds. In addition, many of these plans tend to be among the cheapest in terms of administrative costs. If this is the case with your old employer’s plan, it might make sense to leave your account there. However, it is vital that you manage your account in terms of staying on top of changes in the investment options offered and that you reallocate and rebalance your account when applicable.

Unfortunately far too many lousy 401(k) plans are filled with high cost, underperforming investment choices and leaving your retirement dollars there may not be your best option.

Rolling your account over to an IRA 

This route not only allows for the consolidation of accounts which makes monitoring your portfolio easier, but investors often have access to a wider range of low cost investment options than might be available to them via their old employer’s plan.

Even for do it yourself investors, rolling over to an IRA is often a good idea for similar reasons. You will want to take stock of your overall portfolio goals in light of your financial plan to determine if the custodian you are using or considering to offers a range of appropriate choices for your needs.

Rolling your account into your new employer’s plan 

If allowed by your new employer’s plan, this can be a viable option for you if you are moving to a new job. You will want to ensure that you consult with the administrator of your new employer’s plan and follow all of their rules for moving these dollars over.

This might be a good option for you if your 401(k) balance is small and/or you don’t have significant outside investments. It might also be a good option if your new employer has an outstanding plan on the order of what was mentioned above.

Before going this route, you will want to check out your new employer’s plan.  Is the investment menu filled with solid, low cost investment options? You want to avoid moving these dollars from a solid plan at your old employer to a sub-par plan at your new company. Likewise, you don’t want to move dollars from one lousy plan to another.

Other considerations

A fourth option is to take a distribution of some or all of the dollars in your old plan. Given the potential tax consequences I generally don’t recommend this route.

A few additional considerations are listed below (I mention these here to build your awareness, but I am not covering them in detail here.  If any of these or other situations apply to you, I suggest that you consult with your financial or tax advisor for guidance.):

  • The money coming out of the plan is always taxable, except for any portion in a Roth 401(k) assuming that you have satisfied all requirements to avoid taxes on the Roth portion.
  • You will likely be subject to a penalty if you withdraw funds prior to age 59 ½ with some exceptions such as death and disability.
  • There is also a pretty complex method for those under age 59 ½ to withdraw funds and avoid the penalty called 72(t). Additionally, there are complex rules for those who are 55 and older who wish to take a distribution from their 401(k) upon separating from their employer. In either case consult with a financial advisor who understands these complex rules before proceeding.
  • If your old plan offers a match there is likely a vesting schedule for their matching contributions.  Your salary deferrals are always 100% vested (meaning you have full rights to them).  Matching contributions typically become vested on a schedule such as 20% per year over five years. You will want to know where you stand with regard to vesting anyway, but if you are close to earning another year of vesting you might consider this in the timing of your departure if this is an option and it makes sense in the context of your overall situation.
  • If your company makes annual profit sharing contributions, they might only be payable to employees who are employed as of a certain date. As with the previous bullet point, it might behoove you to plan your departure date around this if the amount looks to be significant and it works in the context of your overall situation.
  • Another factor that might favor rolling your old 401(k) to your new employer’s plan would be your desire to convert traditional IRA dollars to a Roth IRA now or in the future via the use of a backdoor Roth. There could be a tax advantage to be had by doing this, please consult with your financial advisor here for guidance tailored to your unique situation.
  • If you are 72 or older (or had been subject to required minimum distributions under the old rules prior to the SECURE Act) and still working, you are not required to take annual required minimum distributions from your 401(k) as long as you are not a 5% or greater owner of the company and if your employer has made this election for their plan. This applies only to the retirement plan of your current employer, you are subject to any RMDs that would apply to IRAs or old 401(k) plans with former employers. This might also be a reason to consider rolling your old 401(k) or even an IRA to your new employer’s plan if they accept these types of rollovers, again consult with your financial advisor.

There are a number of 401(k) options when leaving your job.  The right course of action will vary based upon your individual circumstances.  The wrong answer is to ignore this decision.

Approaching retirement and want another opinion on where you stand? Need help deciding what to do with your retirement plan when leaving a job? Not sure if your investments are right for your situation? Need help getting on track? Check out my Financial Review/Second Opinion for Individuals service for detailed guidance and advice about your situation.

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  1. Good post Roger! It always amazes me when talking to people the number that simply ignore their old 401k’s. We’ve rolled ours over to self-directed IRA’s as I love the possibilities it opens up to you.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      John it amazes me as well. This like many of my posts is based upon my collective experiences working with clients over the years. In many cases folks are intimidated by moving their 401(k) and many financial services firms have not made this easy in the past.

  2. Hi Roger, As a retirement plan administrator for 25 years, I can think of a few other reasons why you might or might not want to leave your 401(k) with your former employer. On the positive side, 401(k) accounts are not subject to creditor attachment, whereas IRAs are; therefore, if you are currently or think you might be in a home foreclosureor bankruptcy situation in the future, it may be preferable to keep your 401(k) money with your former employer. On the downside, though, sometimes “out of sight, out of mind” applies to old 401(k) money, and the entire account balance could become “lost” if your former employer goes out of business, merges with another firm, or otherwise terminates the 401(k) plan, and the participant has moved or changed names and doesn’t receive plan communications. I know of a situation where the former participant has died, the heirs can’t be located, and the 401(k) funds, totaling more than a quarter million dollars, were sent to the state Unclaimed Property Department.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      Nora thanks for the comment. Great points both pro and con on this issue.

    • Dave Grant, CFP(R) says


      Your comment about IRAs not being protected from bankruptcy creditors is not true. States have specific laws about how much an account can be shielded from creditors, with many reaching 100%. This was made law in the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCA). It should also be noted that if an IRA is 100% funded from an ERISA covered account (i.e. 401(k)) that it keeps its ERISA protection. However, these rules can differ when other judgements come into play.


  3. When I leave a company I have my 401k rolled over into my IRA so I can invest the money as I see fit.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      Thanks for the comment and in general that is a great strategy for most folks. The most important thing is to have a plan for your retirement assets.

  4. In an age when people increasingly will change employers many, many times in their working careers, this is just one of many reasons why the 401(k) model is outdated and serves mostly the financial product providers raking in fees from a captive audience.

  5. Thanks for article as I spent long hours trading this decision as a recent retiree. Using a bucket approach, ear marked money usages and allocation.

    Fortunately for us both of the companies that I had 401Ks with are top S&P 500 so their plans and options are top of the line.

    Major factors for Option 1 in our situation were: 1) Stable and long term reputable companies with wide and low cost support of their 401K plans with designated boards to ensure the health and choices in the plan, 2) Although not mentioned in your article, 401K plans are protected from bankruptcy laws or suits.

    Meaning that in the event of a catastrophe such as bankruptcy, illness, or else, no one can touch your money. Not an inrelevant point since the one of the major causes of bankruptcy is medical emergency bills.

    Security and peace of mind trumps choices if you have identified a required rate of return for your imvestments to last a life time. So it becomes a matter of allocation if low passive investments are chosen.

    Again thanks for the article.

    • Roger Wohlner says

      Thanks for the comment Al. Sounds like you put a lot of thought into this. Best wishes for a long, happy and healthy retirement.

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