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Key questions about your 'old' 401(k)

Key takeaways

  • When you change jobs, having a plan for your 401(k) can help ensure that your retirement savings continue to work hard for your future throughout your career.
  • As you think about your options, consider investment choice, fees and expenses, services, convenience, and when you'll need the money. You may think of other aspects that are important to you too.

What can you do with an old 401(k)?

Your retirement savings are important. After all, the money you've saved will likely provide a large part of your income in retirement. Managing your savings well will help you do what you want after you stop working.

Take your time to make smart decisions for an old 401(k). Before you make any moves, take stock of your options and choose one that works best for you.

Generally, there are 4 options for a 401(k) from an old employer:

  • Leave the money in your previous employer's plan, if that is an option.
  • Roll your savings to your new employer's plan (if available and if permitted by the new employer).
  • Roll your savings to an IRA.
  • Cash out your savings and close your account.

Be sure to note that your plan rules may not allow for every option. For instance, if the balance in your former employer's plan is between $1,000 and $5,000, they may not allow your savings to remain in their plan. Contact your plan service provider for the options available.

If you roll your savings into an IRA, or individual retirement account, consider that you will pay taxes on earnings and contributions when you make withdrawals from a traditional IRA, while earnings from a Roth IRA can be withdrawn federally tax-free and penalty-free provided that it's been 5 years since your first contribution. For a distribution to be considered qualified, the 5-year aging requirement has to be satisfied, and you must be age 59½ or older or meet one of several exemptions (disability, qualified first-time home purchase, or death among them).

Many people might eliminate cashing out as a choice and consider it only if in need of money to pay immediate, essential expenses. The reason? Taxes and penalties can make cashing out enormously expensive. You'll owe income taxes on withdrawals from pre-tax contributions, any earnings and, when you take money out of a retirement account before age 59 1/2, there is typically an additional 10% penalty applied by the IRS. However, you can take penalty-free withdrawals if you leave your job at age 55 or older

Even if you are already over 59 1/2 and in retirement, and using your assets as retirement income, you may want to consider keeping your retirement savings in a tax-advantaged account.

Here are important things to consider as you decide which option may be right for you:

1. What are my investment choices?

Not all retirement accounts provide the same investment options. Some 401(k)s and 403(b)s offer a menu of investments, chosen by the plan's administrator—typically, mutual funds. Some include lower-cost, custom funds not available outside the employer-sponsored plan, and company stock. Depending on your plan and your goals, it may make sense to keep part or all of your savings with your previous employer to take advantage of low-cost funds.

For people with company stock that qualifies for net unrealized appreciation tax treatment, the rollover decision can be very important. Be sure you understand the steps required to qualify for this tax break and speak with a tax advisor before you make a move.

Read Viewpoints on Make the most of company stock

Some investors may find the investment options in an employer-sponsored plan limiting, but some plans offer a self-directed brokerage option that allows access to brokerage investment options. In an IRA with a brokerage firm, your investment choices may be more broad. Self-directed brokerages and IRAs typically provide access to a variety of mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, stocks, bonds, and other investments.

Whatever you decide, make sure that you choose an account option that meets your investment needs.

2. How much are fees and expenses?

As you decide among your options, consider the fees and costs for each option. There are potentially three types of fees that you should consider.

  • Maintenance fees: There may be a quarterly or annual recordkeeping fee associated with your Workplace Savings Plan Account. If considering an IRA, there may be an annual custodial or trustee fee.
  • Investment expenses: A range of expenses are associated with the investment options that you select. These can sometimes be the largest component of the overall costs for your account. Workplace savings plans often have lower cost investment options.
  • Advisory fees: If you select a managed account, advisory fees are generally charged in addition to underlying investment expenses.

3. What services or benefits do I care about?

Many employer-sponsored plans and IRA providers offer online tools that provide education and advice to help you plan and manage your investments. Managed account solutions that provide investment advisory services to help you invest more effectively have also become more common across many employer-sponsored plans and IRA offerings. 

Other examples of services you may want to consider when deciding what to do with an old 401(k) are checkwriting and wire transfers which are not available in those account types. Creditor protection can be a consideration as well. Employer sponsored plan assets are generally shielded from creditors; however, IRAs do not have the same level of protection.

4. When do I expect to need the money?

Workplace retirement plans and IRAs may have different rules for withdrawals. For example, sometimes a 401(k) or 403(b) won't be subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs) while you're still working.

  • If you plan to continue working after age 73,* you might consider a rollover to your new employer's plan.
  • If you're age 55 or older when you leave your job, and you don't plan to go back to work, you might consider leaving the money in your old 401(k), which allows for penalty-free distributions, even if you haven't reached 59½ yet. (Taxes will still apply.)

5. Is convenience important?

Having your retirement savings in one place could make it easier to track and manage your investments, evaluate fees, and manage distributions in retirement—particularly if you have more than one old workplace retirement account. If you prefer to manage all your finances in one place, you might consider consolidating your savings in a new employer's retirement plan or an IRA.

Everyone has different needs and circumstances

Regardless of your unique situation, make sure to consider costs, investment choices, service, convenience, and other factors, to help determine what may be right for you. Be sure to consider all available options and the applicable fees before moving your retirement assets.

What to do with an old 401(k)?

Consolidating 401(k) savings in a rollover IRA might make sense for you.

More to explore

Be sure to consider all your available options and the applicable fees and features of each before moving your retirement assets.

* The change in the RMDs age requirement from 72 to 73 applies only to individuals who turn 73 on or after January 1, 2023. After you reach age 73, the IRS generally requires you to withdraw an RMD annually from your tax-advantaged retirement accounts (excluding Roth IRAs, and Roth accounts in employer retirement plans accounts after December 31, 2023). Please speak with your tax advisor regarding the impact of this change on future RMDs. Recently enacted legislation made a number of changes to the rules regarding defined contribution, defined benefit, and/or individual retirement plans and 529 plans. Information herein may refer to or be based on certain rules in effect prior to this legislation and current rules may differ. As always, before making any decisions about your retirement planning or withdrawals, you should consult with your personal tax advisor. This information is intended to be educational and is not tailored to the investment needs of any specific investor. Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change, which can materially affect investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation. Investing involves risk, including risk of loss.

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