Leaving An Employer? What To Do With Your Old 401(k)

Daniel Brown |

Regardless of whether you’re voluntarily making a job/career change or if you’ve been laid off, the task of deciding what to do about the 401(k) you’re leaving behind is likely not high on your priority list. However, addressing this issue is an incredibly important step that requires a thoughtful consideration of all your options. When leaving one employer for another, there are typically three workable opportunities to continue the growth of your retirement funds. Understanding the pros and cons of each option helps boost the likelihood that your savings will continue to grow and be aligned with the next chapter in your life.


The first step is to read through your plan’s agreement. Doing so will help you understand if your employer plan accepts rollovers as some may not. Ultimately, plan sponsors maintain the membership guidelines. In some cases, your former employer’s plan may allow the sponsor to cash-out the account when you end employment. Withdrawals could trigger income taxes and a 10 percent penalty.1

Before you start, gather any appropriate account statements and contacts. When you signed up for the plan, you may have selected both a traditional 401(k) and a Roth 401(k) but keep in mind, these are two separate accounts. Traditional 401(k) contributions are not taxed but are subject to penalties in the case of early withdrawal. Roth contributions, on the other hand, are taxed but withdrawals have no adverse effect as long as the distribution is considered qualified by the IRS.2

It’s a good idea to meet with a financial advisor before starting the process. You‘ll want to choose the right type of retirement account and avoid paying taxes or penalties for potentially choosing a plan that isn’t right for you. For example, if you decide to roll your 401(k) into a Roth, you should prepare to pay taxes on the full amount.

Execute Planning

One of my objectives in working with clients is to make sure you’re making informed decisions as you continue saving. One way I do this is by sitting down and reviewing your previous employer’s plan and comparing the benefits of your new employer’s retirement plans. It could turn out that leaving your funds with the old employer’s 401(k) plan is advantageous. On the other hand, we could determine its worthwhile to move the funds. If you decide to transfer funds, I can help coordinate the process to ensure that such a transaction is executed with minimal negative tax implications.

Financial Precautions

Depending on the length of your previous employment, it’s a good idea to also check the associated vesting schedules. Vesting schedules are tied to the employer’s contributions and determine the amount and date when the employer’s contributions are legally yours. Your own contributions are fully vested from day one.

Age is another contributing factor when deciding how to approach a former employer’s 401(k). For instance, if you quit a job, are laid off or fired the year you turn 55, you may withdraw funds penalty-free from the 401(k) established through that employer only.3 If you choose to roll the funds over into another 401(k) or IRA, you will need to wait to withdraw those funds until age 59½ in order to avoid the 10 percent withdrawal penalty. In addition, this penalty-free withdrawal does not count for 401(k) accounts established through previous employers. It only is eligible in regards to the account established with the employer you’ve left at age 55 or older. If you’re unsure about what options may be right for you, talk with a financial advisor to help ease your concerns and help you avoid costly mistakes.

It’s important to also keep in mind that your new employer may have a waiting period before you’re able to rollover funds. In this case, your advisor may suggest that you open an investment account to continue contributions during the waiting period. Opening another account allows you to take advantage of the tax deduction until you make your final decision. Keeping investment growth active could be more beneficial for you in the long run.

From old job to new, you’re on the right track by having already started saving for retirement. By working with me, you’ll gain additional insight and understand the regulations of moving your funds in the most beneficial way. I will also assist with navigating any future changes you may encounter.

  1. https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/what-if-i-withdraw-money-from-my-ira
  2. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/retirement-plans-faqs-regarding-iras-distributions-withdrawals
  3. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/plan-participant-employee/retirement-topics-tax-on-early-distributions
This content is developed from sources believed to be providing accurate information, and provided by MBAM. It may not be used for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. Please consult legal or tax professionals for specific information regarding your individual situation. The opinions expressed and material provided are for general information and should not be considered a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security.