According to the Investment Company Institute, 401K plan assets reached $4.8 trillion dollars at the end of the first quarter in 2016. That’s nearly 20% of total retirement assets in America (which was at $24.1 trillion).

For 401K plan holders heading into retirement, changing jobs, or leaving a company, a big question looms: what should be done with this type of retirement savings account? Essentially, investors have to choose whether or not to roll the money over into a new account.

Options for rolling the 401K over include putting the cash into a self-directed IRA or transferring it to a new employer’s 401K plan. If workers decide against a rollover, the other options are to leave the account alone or cash out. Before making a decision, investors should look at the pros and cons and choose based on their unique situation.

Rollover Options and Advantages

There are significant advantages to rolling the 401K over to a new employer’s plan or IRA. Most investment professionals advise choosing an IRA, but it’s important for workers to also examine the quality of the new company’s 401K plan (if going to another job).

Pros of the Rollover into a Traditional IRA

Dr. Don Taylor, a retirement advisor and contributor at Bankrate, says that the rollover to a traditional individual retirement account from a former company’s 401K plan can provide “wider investment choices and potentially reduced annual fees and other expenses.” This flexibility makes the IRA an attractive selection, as investors can choose among mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and exchange-traded funds.

Like with a traditional 401K employer plan, money can continue to grow tax-deferred in a traditional IRA. That way, investors won’t have to worry about capital gains and dividend taxes each year.

This also allows workers to shop for plans with lower fees, and, if desired, select an IRA with more access to investing tools and management guidance. The IRA can also be withdrawn without penalty for specific purposes, like college tuition or a first-time home purchase (up to $10,000).

Pros of the Rollover into a Roth IRA

Unlike traditional IRAs, Roth IRA contributions are made after income is taxed—with the benefit that earnings are not taxed when withdrawn later. Because contributions are made after income taxation, investors have the ability to withdraw those contributions (not earnings) from the account without fees.

The Roth IRA does not have minimum required distributions after reaching age 70½, unlike 401Ks and Traditional IRAs. This makes it a potentially lucrative investment vehicle into old age and a good option for those looking to set up future generations.

Since the Roth IRA rollover requires a tax payment before transfer, Dr. Don Taylor attests that a Roth IRA rollover makes sense only if investors can come up with the tax fees from a source other than the 401K funds and “expect to be in a lower tax bracket now than when (they) start tapping retirement funds.” This makes paying the taxes now financially beneficial in the long run.

Pros of the Rollover into the New Employer’s 401K Plan

Most employers offer new employees the chance to roll over their old company’s plan. Getting all retirement plans into one place can make saving much more convenient and cheaper.

Investors should compare fees between the two company’s plans, and only roll over their old 401K’s cash if the new employer’s plan has lower fees and/or better investment options. The new company’s plan may even have lower fees than IRA accounts do.

For those that do choose to transfer to the new company’s fund, understand those earnings will continue to grow tax-deferred, and while those funds can be withdrawn after 59½ years old without penalty, workers may have the option to delay required minimum distributions (RMDs) beyond 70½ years old (if still employed at that company).

Traditional benefits of the old 401K still apply at the new company too. Investors are given more protection under federal law, as 401K assets are better protected from claims from creditors than IRA assets are. Many 401K plans provide investors the benefit of being able to borrow against the plan as well.

Options for Those Choosing Against the Rollover

While rolling the account over is traditionally the best choice, everyone’s personal situation is different. In some circumstances, one of the following two options may be the most ideal—or necessary—choice.

Leave the 401K Alone

The first and most common choice is simply to leave the 401K account with the old employer and let earnings continue to rise tax-free. For investors that like their current plan, aren’t paying a lot in fees, and are happy with its performance, this may be the best—and easiest—choice. Prior to doing this, do compare fee charges with other fund options, like the new business’ 401K plan and traditional and Roth IRAs.

In addition to having the benefits mentioned above for 401K plans, there is also a specific benefit for not touching the 401K. For those that leave their employer between the ages of 55 and 59½, they can enjoy penalty-free withdrawals before reaching 59½ (the typical starting withdrawal age).

Before doing this, ex-employees should check to see if their employers allow the money to stay in their old account. Most companies require at least a balance of $5,000


A final choice is the cashout. Most investors don’t suggest this route, as paying taxes on the withdrawal alone could easily cut into 35% of the total amount (depending on the tax bracket). A withdrawal penalty of 10% would also be assessed if younger than 59½.

Additionally, savings would no longer grow tax-deferred, which means investors robbing their future selves. For example, take the case of a worker making $75,000 per year who has a traditional 401K with $50,000 in assets. This worker decides to withdraw it all after quitting the company. In this case, 25% of that amount would be taxed and a 10% penalty would be implemented, leaving the worker with 35% less, or just $32,500. If this money was simply just left in the 401K and continued to grow at a decent rate for one or two decades, this easily turns into a six-figure mistake.

The cash-out option is mostly seen as a last resort for those experiencing a legit financial emergency and can’t access cash from other sources, such as lenders, savings accounts, and family. Only do it if absolutely necessary. Nearly every time, borrowing from other sources makes more financial sense than cashing out retirement savings.

Making the Best Decision with the 401K

While the traditional IRA is commonly seen as the best rollover option for 401K plans with an old employer, everyone’s personal situation is different. Ideally, workers should always research and choose retirement savings plans with low fees and high returns. They should make choices that set them up for long-term financial success.

Thus, it’s advised to also analyze the financial advantages and disadvantages of rolling over to the Roth IRA, transferring to another company’s 401K plan, and leaving the money with the old 401K. Once workers have a clear picture of what makes the most financial sense, they can go through with the decision—and watch their nest egg grow to its highest potential.