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Got an Old Workplace Retirement Account? Know Your Options

Jun 28, 2021 4 min read Riley Adams, CPA

Key takeaways

  • Rolling over a 401(k) or other workplace retirement account can offer advantages, but watch for tricky rules at tax time.
  • Sometimes it’s best to do nothing at all, especially if your money’s in a low-fee plan.
  • Beware the siren call of cashing out.


If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably had more than your fair share of jobs. For example, on average older millennials—those born in the early 1980s—held over eight jobs between ages 18 and 32, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Opens in new window.

To be sure, job hopping can provide opportunities for career—and income—advancement. But in the process, you might be leaving your future savings behind. In fact, reports The Aspen Institute Opens in new window, 30% of people who’ve changed jobs have left 401(k), 403(b), 457 or similar retirement accounts with their former organizations.



Leaving retirement money where it is can make sense, especially if your old plan has good investment choices and low costs. But it’s not the only way to go—nor is it always the best plan.

You generally have four options for retirement accounts still sitting where you used to work:

  • Leave the funds where they are
  • Roll over to an IRA
  • Roll over to a new workplace plan
  • Cash out (take the money and run)

Here’s a closer look at each.


Leave the funds where they are

Leaving retirement money in your old plan—assuming you’re allowed to—could cut down on potential administrative headaches. Also, the account can maintain its potential to grow tax deferred, and you can usually change investments as you see fit.

Even so, you won’t be able to contribute more money to the account. Maybe worse: You run the risk of forgetting about it. After all, out of sight can often mean out of mind. As a result, you might not be managing investments that could be critical to your future in the best way; the portfolio you carefully designed in your 20s or 30s may no longer match your risk profile or time horizon.

Remember, regardless of your decisions, you should monitor your accounts at least annually to ensure they continue to meet your objectives.


Roll over to an IRA

A rollover allows you to take the money in your retirement plan and move it to an individual retirement account (IRA). One advantage is that you could have access to a far wider range of investments. This includes individual stocks and possibly alternative investments if you opt for a self-directed IRA (SDIRA).

If the retirement plan you leave only has a narrow range of choices and their investments carry a high price tag, consider rolling over. Additionally, think about rolling over if you have ongoing account expenses and fees.

There are multiple upsides to a rollover:

  • It’s easier to keep track of your money. All your assets are under one roof. This also means...
  • You can use a big-picture investment strategy. Bringing all of your accounts together, a.k.a. consolidation, helps you invest with your entire portfolio in mind. This lets you avoid deciding what investments to hold in different accounts. Instead, you can choose and maintain an asset allocation—how much you want in stocks, bonds and other asset classes—across all of your retirement money.
  • You could access alternative investments. Workplace plans usually have a limited menu of investment options, often built around “target-date” funds (TDFs)—mixes of stocks and bonds that grow more conservative as the target (typically the year you expect to retire) approaches. While a TDF may be fine for you, know that different fund providers take different approaches to risk—and theirs might not match up with yours. Also, TDFs are meant to be be all-in-one solutions; mixing one TDF with other investments can mess up your overall strategy. By contrast, a rollover could open up more fund options (including TDFs) at a brokerage firm. You can even buy individual stocks or alternative assets like real estate or private investments if you open an SDIRA.
  • It may cost less. Rolling the money into an IRA may give you access to lower-cost methods of saving.

If you roll over to an IRA, decide between a “traditional” tax-deferred account and an after-tax Roth account. With a traditional rollover IRA, you pay no tax on the money until you withdraw it. With a Roth, you pay taxes upfront, but you can grow and withdraw your money tax free down the road. (If you’re rolling over from a Roth 401(k), 403(b) or 457, sticking with a Roth makes sense.)

Also, consider a “direct” rollover Opens in new window—straight from your old plan to the IRA. If that’s not doable or you want more control over the process, you can have a check made out to the IRA provider for your benefit (“FBO your name”) and sent to you, after which you’ll have 60 days to deposit it into a qualified account. Otherwise, you’ll owe income taxes and potential penalties.

Further, if you get a check made out to you, you’ll still have that 60-day window to deposit the money into an IRA—but your former organization will be required to withhold 20% for federal income tax. (To continue deferring taxes on the money in the account, you’d need to make up that amount on your own.)


Roll over to a new workplace plan

Some organizations allow employees or members to roll their old 401(k), 403(b) and 457 plans into their new accounts. As with an IRA rollover, you’ll be able to keep all your retirement assets together.

This can be a good option if your new plan has a broad menu of low-cost investment options. (Larger institutions tend to offer more choices and have the bargaining power to help keep fees down.)

Also, moving funds among workplace plans keeps them legally protected from creditors. While many states provide equal protection to 401(k), 403(b) and 457 funds rolled into IRAs, regulations vary.


Take the money and run

Cashing out some or all of your retirement accounts can be tempting, particularly if you have an urgent financial need you can’t meet otherwise. (Pro tip: Buying a boat for weekend fishing trips is not an urgent financial need.) But the downsides are significant:

  • Tax withholding. The IRS requires automatic withholding of 20% on retirement funds you take before age 59½—and you might owe even more income tax depending on your federal bracket.
  • Penalties. The IRS will usually assess a 10% penalty early-withdrawal penalty when you file your taxes for the year you make the withdrawal.
  • Less money for your future. Most importantly, cashing out your retirement plan early means less money for your future because you haven’t given it more chance to grow. It’s even worse if you sell and cash out during a down market—you’ll be further behind and won’t be able to make up for it.

What you can do next

Amid the excitement (or relief) of starting a new job, the fate of your old 401(k) or other retirement plan may not be your first priority. But don’t forget to stay on top of it, whether that means leaving it alone (but not forgetting about it), rolling it into an IRA or your new workplace plan or—if you have no alternative—cashing out. In any case, consult your tax or legal advisor for advice on your particular circumstances.


Riley Adams, CPA, is a senior financial analyst at Google with over a decade of professional experience. He has written for MarketWatch, Kiplinger, MSN, Yahoo Finance, Morningstar and TDAmeritrade, as well as his own personal finance website.


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