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How to Roll Over Your 401(k)

By MP Dunleavey · September 01, 2022 · 9 minute read

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How to Roll Over Your 401(k)

It’s pretty easy to rollover your old 401(k) retirement savings to an IRA, a new 401(k), or another option — yet millions of workers either forget to rollover their hard-won retirement savings, or they lose track of the accounts.

According to a 2021 study by Capitalize, some 24 million 401(k) accounts seem to be forgotten or “lost”, with an average balance of about $55,000 in these dormant accounts.

Given that a 401(k) rollover just takes a couple of hours and, these days, minimal paperwork, it makes sense to know the basics so you can rescue your 401(k), roll it over to a new account, and add to your future financial security.

How Does Rolling Over Your 401(k) Work?

Many people wonder how to rollover a 401(k) when they leave their jobs. First, you need to know the difference between a transfer and a rollover.

A transfer is when you move funds between two identical types of retirement accounts. For example, if a person moves money from an old 401(k) to a new 401(k), a traditional IRA to another traditional IRA, or from an old Roth IRA to a new Roth IRA — that’s a transfer. It’s the most direct way to move funds from one tax-advantaged account to another.

A rollover is when you move money between two different types of retirement accounts. For example: You might rollover a 401(k) to an IRA.

💡 Recommended: What Is an IRA and How Does It Work?

Bear in mind, rollover accounts can be different, but must have the same tax treatment. You can’t rollover a tax-deferred traditional 401(k) to a Roth IRA without doing some kind of Roth conversion.

Steps to Roll Over Your 401(k)

Here are the basic steps, with more detail to follow:

1.    Decide whether you want to roll it over to an IRA (a common option); transfer the funds to another employer’s 401(k); or set up an account like a self-directed IRA.

2.    Set up the rollover account. Remember that rollovers have to be apples to apples in terms of tax treatment: a tax-deferred 401(k) to a traditional IRA; a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA.

3.    Contact your former employer or 401(k) plan sponsor to initiate the rollover. (Depending on which rollover option you choose, the process or paperwork may be slightly different.)

4.    Generally, the funds are sent to you in a check although they can be wired to a rollover IRA at a new institution, for example. Either way, you have 60 days to deposit the funds in another tax-deferred account, or you will owe taxes on the money and possibly a penalty.

Benefits of Rolling Over Your 401(k)

Once you understand how to roll over a 401(k), it’s easy to understand what the advantages are. First and foremost, by doing a rollover, you ensure that you are in charge of your retirement funds (which is important, after years of investing in your 401(k)).

Other pros include:

•   Your investment account costs will likely be lower once you do a rollover, because leaving your savings in your old 401(k) when you’re no longer an employee means you may pay higher account management fees. Fees matter, and can substantially reduce your savings over time.

•   You may have more investment choices. Typically, when you do a rollover from a 401(k) to an IRA at a new institution, your investment options increase which might improve portfolio returns and could further reduce fees.

•   If you don’t want a self-directed portfolio, where you choose the investments in your rollover, you may be able to choose a robo-advisor or automated portfolio so there’s less for you to manage.

•   If you have more than one 401(k) from various jobs, you can consolidate them as part of the rollover process.

Disadvantages of Rolling Over a 401(k)

Since you want to avoid retirement mistakes, it’s also important to consider some of the reasons why a rollover may not be the best idea.

•   First, if you have a lot of appreciated company stock, you may be able to pay a lower tax rate on the gains if you transfer the stock to a brokerage account.

•   While a rollover account at a different institution may provide more investment options, if you keep your 401(k) where it is, you may be able to buy investments at the cheaper institutional rate.

•   If you do a rollover, you may lose some of the federal legal protections that come with 401(k) plans. For example, the money in your 401(k) is typically protected from creditors or collections, whereas the money in an IRA is shielded by state laws, which can vary.

•   In some cases, your employer may allow you to withdraw funds from your 401(k) without paying the usual 10% penalty, if you are 55 or older when you leave your job.

Pros and Cons of Doing a 401(k) Rollover

Pros

Cons

Potentially lower investment fees, which can impact savings over time. If you have company stock in your 401(k), it might save on taxes if you transfer the stock to a brokerage rather than doing a rollover.
More investment choices; more control over your portfolio. Investment options may cost less in a 401(k) vs. an IRA.
The option to switch to a robo advisor if you prefer an automated approach. Keeping your 401(k) may offer legal protection from creditors or collections.
Ability to consolidate accounts. Keeping your money in your 401(k) could give you penalty-free access before age 59 ½ vs. an IRA.

When Is a Good Time to Roll Over a 401(k)?

Once you know how to roll over a 401(k), and you’ve decided that’s your next step, doing it as soon as you leave your job is likely the best time. But you can generally do a rollover any time. It’s your money. If you decide to do the rollover five years after leaving your job, that’s a better time than never.

That said, if you have a low balance in your 401(k) account — for example, less than $5,000 — your employer might require you to do a rollover. And if you have a balance lower than $1,000, your employer may have the right to cash it out. Be sure to check the exact terms with your employer.

In most instances, you have 60 days from the date you receive an IRA or 401(k) distribution to then roll it over into a new qualified plan. If you wait longer than 60 days to deposit the money, it will trigger tax consequences, and possibly a penalty. One rollover per year is allowed under the rules.

5 Things You Can Do With Your Old 401(k)

If you’re still asking yourself, But how do I rollover my 401(k)?, here are five possible choices that might make sense when deciding how to handle your old account.

Option 1: Leave Your 401(k) Where It Is

Is it ever a good idea to let sleeping 401(k)s lie? Sometimes, yes.

For instance, maybe your old job was with a super-hip, savvy startup that chose a stellar plan with multiple investment options and low administration fees that stayed in place even after you left your job. This is rare! But the point is: If you’re happy with your portfolio mix and you have a substantial amount of cash stashed in there already, it might behoove you to leave your 401(k) where it is.

Other than that, you probably want to make sure you’re in charge of your money — not your former employer.

Also, besides any additional fees you might end up paying, racking up multiple 401(k)s as you change jobs could lead to a more complicated withdrawal schedule at retirement.

Option 2: Roll Over Your 401(k) Into an IRA

If your new job doesn’t offer a 401(k) or other company-sponsored account like a 403(b), don’t worry: You still have options that’ll keep you from bearing a heavy tax burden. Namely, you can roll your 401(k) into an IRA, or Individual Retirement Account.

The entire procedure essentially boils down to three steps:

1.    Open a new IRA that will accept rollover funds.

2.    Contact the company that currently holds your 401(k) funds and fill out their transfer forms using the account information of your newly opened IRA. You should receive essential information about your benefits when you leave your current position. If you’ve lost track of that information, you can contact the plan sponsor or the company HR department.

3.    Once your money is transferred, you can reinvest the money as you see fit. Or you can hire an advisor to help you set up your new portfolio. It also may be possible to resume making deposits/contributions to your rollover IRA.

Option 3: Roll Over Your 401(k) to Your New Job

If your new job offers a 401(k) or similar plan, rolling your old 401(k) funds into your shiny, new 401(k) account may be both the simplest and best option — and the one least likely to lead to a tax headache.

That said, how you go about the rollover has a pretty major impact on how much effort and paperwork is involved, which is why it’s important to understand the difference between direct and indirect transfers.

How to Roll Over Your 401(k): Direct vs Indirect Transfers

Here are the two main options you’ll have if you’re moving your 401(k) funds from one company-sponsored retirement account to another.

A direct transfer, or direct rollover, is exactly what it sounds like: The money moves directly from your old account to the new one. In other words, you never have access to the money, which means you don’t have to worry about any tax withholdings or other liabilities.

Depending on your account custodian(s), this transfer may all be done digitally via ACH transfer, or you may receive a paper check made payable to the new account. Either way, this is considered the simplest option, and one that keeps your retirement fund intact and growing with the least possible interruption.

Another viable, but slightly more complex, option, is to do an indirect transfer or rollover, in which you cash out the account with the express intent of immediately reinvesting it into another retirement fund, whether that’s your new company’s 401(k) or an IRA (see above).

But here’s the tricky part: Since you’ll actually have the cash in hand, the government requires your account custodian to withhold a mandatory 20% tax. And although you’ll get that 20% back in the form of a tax exemption later, you do have to make up the 20% out of pocket and deposit the full amount into your new retirement account within 60 days.

For example, say you have $50,000 in your old 401(k). If you elected to do an indirect transfer, your custodian would cut you a check for only $40,000, thanks to the mandatory 20% tax withholding.

But in order to avoid fees and penalties, you’d still need to deposit the full $50,000 into your new retirement account, including $10,000 out of your own pocket. In addition, if you retain any funds from the rollover, they may be subject to an additional 10% penalty for early withdrawal.

Option 4: Cashing Out Your 401(k)

One recent review of 401(k) accounts found that 21% of Americans who left their jobs during the pandemic also cashed out their 401(k) accounts. Generally speaking, withdrawing these retirement funds is not a good idea, and here’s why.

Because a 401(k) is an investment account designed specifically for retirement, and comes with certain tax benefits — e.g. you don’t pay any tax on the money you contribute to your 401(k) — the account is also subject to strict rules regarding when you can actually access the money, and the tax you’d owe when you did.

Specifically, if you take out or borrow money from your 401(k) before age 59 ½, you’ll likely be subject to an additional 10% tax penalty on the full amount of your withdrawal — and that’s on top of the regular income taxes you’ll also be obligated to pay on the money.

Depending on your income tax bracket, that means an early withdrawal from your 401(k) could really cost you, not to mention possibly leaving you without a nest egg to help secure your future.

This is why most financial professionals generally recommend one of the next two options: rolling your account over into a new 401(k), or an IRA if your new job doesn’t offer a 401(k) plan.

Option 5: Rolling Your 401(k) Over to a Self-Directed IRA

A self-directed IRA, sometimes called a SDIRA, is an unusual type of retirement account — and it’s not widely available. That’s because these types of accounts aren’t just for traditional securities, but for alternative investments normally not permitted in traditional IRAs: i.e. real estate, collectibles (like art and jewelry), commodities, precious metals, and more.

These accounts are considered self-directed because, first, they are only available through certain financial firms that will custody SDIRA accounts, not manage them. Second, SDIRA custodians can’t give financial advice, so all the due diligence and asset management falls to the investor.

While you can consider doing a rollover to a SDIRA, be sure that setting up such an account makes sense for your current holdings, or whether a traditional IRA or Roth might do just as well.

The Takeaway

It’s not difficult to rollover your 401(k), and doing so can offer you a number of advantages. First of all, when you leave a job you may lose certain benefits and terms that applied to your 401(k) while you were an employee. Once you move on, you may pay more in account fees, and you will likely lose the ability to keep contributing to your account.

Rolling over your 401(k) — to a new employer’s plan, or to an IRA — gives you more control over your retirement funds, and could also give you more investment choices.

There are some instances where you may not want to do a rollover, for instance when you own a lot of your old company’s stock, so be sure to think through your options.

If you know that moving your 401(k) money over to an IRA is the right thing, SoFi makes it super easy. Once you open an investment account with SoFi Invest and set up a traditional or Roth IRA account, you can transfer the funds from your old 401(k) and either keep the same (or similar investments), or choose new ones.

For a limited time, opening and funding an account gives you the opportunity to win up to $1,000 in the stock of your choice.

FAQ

How can you roll over a 401(k)?

It’s fairly easy to roll over a 401(k). First decide where you want to open your rollover account (usually an IRA), then contact your old plan’s administrator, or your former HR department. They typically issue a check that can be sent directly to you or to the rollover account at a new institution.

What options are available for rolling over a 401(k)?

There are several options for rolling over a 401(k), including transferring your savings to a traditional IRA, or to the 401(k) at your new job. You can also leave the account where it is, although this may incur additional fees. It’s generally not advisable to cash out a 401(k), as replacing that retirement money could be challenging.

Does SoFi allow you to roll over your 401(k)?

Yes, you can rollover funds from a 401(k) to a rollover IRA with SoFi.

To initiate the rollover, set up an account with SoFi Invest, and contact your 401(k) plan administrator or the HR department of your previous employer.


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