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What to Do With Your 401(k) When You Retire


One of the biggest decisions new retirees must make is what to do with the money in their company-sponsored 401(k) plan. You can generally maintain your 401(k) with your former employer or roll it over into an individual retirement account. IRAs maintain the same tax benefits of a 401(k) and typically offer more investment options, but there are instances when it makes sense to keep your money in the 401(k) plan.

Here’s how to decide what to do with your 401(k) when you retire:

— You can start 401(k) distributions without penalty after age 59 1/2.

— If you leave your job at age 55 or older, you can start penalty-free withdrawals early.

— Remember to start required minimum distributions after age 72, unless you are still working.

— Take steps to keep costs low.

— Evaluate the investment options in your 401(k) plan.

— Consider leaving the money in your 401(k) plan.

— Consider rolling over to an IRA.

Start 401(k) Distributions

If you are age 59 1/2 or older, you can start taking withdrawals from your 401(k) without triggering the early withdrawal penalty. You will owe income tax on each distribution from a traditional 401(k).

[Read: How Much Should You Contribute to a 401(k)?]

Factor in the Age 55 Rule

If you leave your job in the year you turn age 55 or later, you may be able to start penalty-free 401(k) withdrawals as early as age 55. However, if you roll the funds over to an IRA, you will be required to wait until 59 1/2 to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty.

Take Required Minimum Distributions

If you are 72 or older, you will need to take required minimum distributions from your 401(k) account each year. “You don’t have to touch the 401(k) until you are 72,” says Morgan Hill, CEO of Hill & Hill Financial in Woodstock, Georgia. If you stay on the job past age 72 and don’t own 5% or more of the company, you may be able to continue to delay 401(k) withdrawals while you are working if your plan allows it. “You don’t have to take mandatory distributions until you actually leave,” Hill says.

Distributions from traditional retirement accounts count as income. Make sure you plan out when you will begin taking the distributions to lessen the tax impact. A fee-only financial planner or accountant can help you determine the best way to start drawing down your assets and provide insight about the tax impact of your decisions.

[See: How to Pay Less Tax on Retirement Account Withdrawals.]

Keeps Costs Low

Take a look at the administrative and investment costs associated with your 401(k) plan. You can look up the 401(k) plan fees you are paying on your annual 401(k) fee disclosure statement. You may be able to move your money into lower cost funds within the plan. You can also compare the fees and investment costs in your 401(k) plan to potential IRAs. Your company may have negotiated low fees with the plan administrator, especially if you are with a large employer. But if your 401(k) plan has high fees, you could find a more reasonably priced IRA.

Evaluate Investment Options

Most 401(k) plans have a limited investment selection. If you are happy with the investments that are provided, there’s no reason to switch. However, IRAs have a wider selection of investment options than 401(k) plans. “I would always advocate to roll it into an IRA,” says Mitchell Katz, a partner and financial advisor at Capital Associates Wealth Management in Bethesda, Maryland. “Typically, 401(k)s don’t have a big catalog of investment choices.”

The typical 401(k) plan might have a few dozen funds, while an IRA can provide thousands of investment choices including a full gamut of individual securities, mutual funds, bonds and exchange-traded funds. “By putting it into an IRA rollover, you should be able to build the portfolio you want and get the rate of return you need so you don’t outlive your money,” Katz says. “Because you have more choices, you should be able to get a little more downside protection.”

[See: 9 Ways to Avoid the 401(k) Early Withdrawal Penalty and Other Fees.]

Consider Leaving Your Money in the 401(k) Plan

There are several reasons to leave your 401(k) money with your company when you retire. If your 401(k) plan has cost-effective investment options, there may be little reason to move your money. “If they work for a large employer, that employer, due to economies of scale, typically can negotiate fees and expenses for that 401(k) plan that are really low for the participants in the plan,” says M. Tyler Ozanne, a certified financial planner and president of Ozanne Financial Services in Dallas.

If you are in financial trouble, it is best to leave your money in a 401(k) plan. “The bankruptcy courts cannot touch your 401(k) plan, but they might be able to take money from your IRA account,” says Tiffany Kent, founding partner of Wealth Engagement in Atlanta, Georgia.

Consider Rolling Over to an IRA

It can be difficult to manage and track your retirement investments when you have multiple IRAs and 401(k) accounts. Consolidating your retirement accounts by rolling your savings into a single IRA can simplify your financial life. If you plan to take on another job in retirement, you could also move your money into your new employer plan.

IRAs provide a wider selection of investments than 401(k) plans, and you can shop around for accounts with low fees. A direct rollover from a 401(k) to an IRA is a penalty-free and tax-free transaction, and you can choose an IRA with the investments you want at a reasonable price.

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