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  • Writer's pictureJohn A. White

What to Do With Your Retirement Plan from a Past Employer


When managing your retirement savings, one crucial decision you may face is what to do with your retirement plan from a past employer. Whether you have a 401(k), 403(b), or 457(b) plan, understanding your options and making an informed decision is essential.

In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the different aspects of rollovers, including the benefits, potential tax implications, and considerations for each type of retirement plan. We will explore the options available, such as keeping your retirement plan with your former employer, rolling over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA), rolling over into a new employer’s retirement plan, or cashing out your plan. We will also guide you in initiating a rollover and seeking professional advice to make the best decision for your financial future.

As always, if you ever have any questions, feel free to call/text me at (770) 598–5489, or email me at john@financialguideposts. I would love to chat about making smart money choices!

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Understanding Rollovers

What is a Rollover?

A rollover is the process of transferring funds from one retirement account to another. It allows you to maintain the tax-advantaged status of your savings and provides you with flexibility and control over your retirement assets, even when changing jobs or retiring.

Why Consider a Rollover?

There are several reasons why you might consider a rollover. First, it allows you to consolidate your retirement savings into a single account, making managing and monitoring your investments easier. Additionally, a rollover provides a broader range of investment options than employer-sponsored plans’ limited choices. Lastly, a rollover lets you choose a financial institution or provider that aligns with your investment goals and preferences.

Types of Rollovers

There are different types of rollovers, each with its own set of rules and considerations. The most common options include keeping your retirement plan with your former employer, rolling over into an IRA or a new employer’s retirement plan, or cashing out your plan. Let’s explore each option in more detail.

Keeping Your Retirement Plan with Your Former Employer

Benefits of Keeping Your Retirement Plan

One option is to leave your retirement plan with your former employer. Many companies allow you to keep your savings in their plans after you leave. There are several benefits to consider:

  1. Tax-Advantaged Growth: By leaving your money in the plan, it continues to grow tax-advantaged, potentially allowing you to maximize your retirement savings.

  2. Penalty-Free Withdrawals: If you leave your former job at age 55 or older, you may be eligible for penalty-free withdrawals, providing additional financial flexibility.

  3. Lower-Cost Investment Options: Some employer-sponsored plans offer institutionally priced or unique investment options, which may be lower-cost than retail investment options.

  4. Creditor Protection: Federal law provides broad protection against creditors for funds held in employer-sponsored retirement plans, offering an added layer of financial security.

While keeping your retirement plan with your former employer offers these advantages, there are also some considerations.

Withdrawal Options and Required Minimum Distributions

Depending on the plan rules, if your account balance is low (less than $7,000), your former employer may send you a taxable distribution, roll over the funds into an IRA, or transfer them to your new employer’s plan. It’s essential to understand your withdrawal options and any potential tax consequences.

Additionally, once you reach age 73 (or 75 if born in 1960 or later), you must take the annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your employer-sponsored plan. To avoid penalties, you must withdraw a certain amount each year, based on your account balance and life expectancy.

Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA)

If you hold appreciated company stock in your workplace savings account, it’s essential to consider the potential impact of net unrealized appreciation (NUA). NUA is a tax strategy that allows you to take advantage of favorable capital gains tax rates on the appreciation of company stock.

Before deciding to keep your retirement plan with your former employer, evaluate whether NUA could provide additional tax benefits. It’s recommended to consult with a tax advisor or financial planner to fully understand the implications and determine if this strategy aligns with your overall financial goals.

Rolling Over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Benefits of Rolling Over into an IRA

Another option is to roll over your retirement plan into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). This choice offers several advantages:

  1. Tax-Deferred Growth: By rolling over your funds into an IRA, you can continue to enjoy tax-deferred growth, allowing your savings to potentially grow more rapidly over time.

  2. Expanded Investment Choices: An IRA provides a broader range of investment options than an employer-sponsored plan. Based on your risk tolerance and investment objectives, you can choose from a wide array of stocks, bonds, mutual funds, ETFs, and other investment vehicles.

  3. Flexibility and Control: Rolling over into an IRA allows you to manage your retirement savings according to your timeline and preferences. You can easily adjust your investment strategy, rebalance your portfolio, or explore different investment opportunities as your financial goals evolve.

  4. Rollover by Source Type: With an IRA, you can roll over different source types separately, allowing you to maintain the tax advantages of each. For example, you can roll over pre-tax assets into a Traditional IRA and Roth assets into a Roth IRA.

While an IRA offers these benefits, be aware of potential drawbacks.

Choosing an IRA Provider

When selecting an IRA provider, it’s essential to research and compare fees and expenses. Financial institutions and providers may charge varying fees for account maintenance, investment management, or transaction costs. Consider the impact of these fees on your long-term returns and choose a provider that offers competitive pricing with a wide range of investment options.

Rollover Process and Potential Tax Implications

To initiate a rollover into an IRA, you must contact your former employer or plan administrator to request the necessary paperwork. Once you receive the required forms, complete them accurately and return them within the timeframe.

There are two methods of rollover: direct and indirect. A direct rollover involves transferring the funds from your employer-sponsored plan to your IRA custodian, ensuring a smooth and efficient process. An indirect rollover, on the other hand, requires you to receive the funds from your plan and then deposit them into your IRA within 60 days. However, with an indirect rollover, you may be subject to withholding requirements and potential tax consequences if not completed within the specified timeframe.

It’s essential to consult with a tax advisor or financial planner to understand the potential tax implications of a rollover. Depending on the type of retirement plan and the status of your contributions (pre-tax or after-tax), there may be tax considerations to consider during the rollover process.

Rolling Over into a New Employer’s Retirement Plan

Eligibility and Transfer Options

If you change jobs and your new employer offers a retirement plan, you may have the option to roll over your funds from your former employer’s plan into the new plan. This option is available for various types of retirement plans, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and 457(b)s.

Contact your new employer’s plan administrator or HR department to determine your eligibility and transfer options. They will provide the necessary information and paperwork to initiate the rollover.

Benefits and Considerations of Rolling Over

Rolling over into a new employer’s retirement plan offers several benefits:

  1. Consolidation of Retirement Savings: By transferring your funds to a new employer’s plan, you can consolidate your retirement savings into a single account, simplifying your overall financial management.

  2. Continued Tax-Advantaged Growth: Rolling over into a new plan allows your retirement savings to continue growing tax-advantaged, providing you with the potential for long-term wealth accumulation.

  3. Access to Employer-Matched Contributions: If your new employer offers a matching contribution program, rolling over your funds may allow you to take advantage of this benefit and maximize your retirement savings.

However, there are considerations to keep in mind before making a decision:

  1. Investment Options and Fees: Evaluate the investment choices offered by your new employer’s plan and compare them to your existing options. Consider the fees and expenses associated with each investment option to ensure they align with your investment goals.

  2. Plan Restrictions and Withdrawal Rules: Familiarize yourself with your new employer’s plan rules and regulations. Understand any withdrawal restrictions, loan provisions, or other features that may impact your ability to access your funds when needed.

  3. Portability and Flexibility: Consider your future career plans and the likelihood of changing jobs again. If you anticipate additional job changes, rolling over into an IRA may provide greater portability and flexibility for managing your retirement savings.

Cashing Out Your Retirement Plan

Potential Tax Consequences

Cashing out your retirement plan should be a last resort due to the potential tax consequences. When you cash out your plan, the entire distribution is subject to income tax in the year of withdrawal. This can result in a significant tax liability, especially if you have a substantial account balance.

Additionally, if you withdraw funds before age 59½, you may be subject to an early withdrawal penalty of 10%. This penalty is in addition to the regular income tax due on the distribution.

Early Withdrawal Penalties

Early withdrawal penalties are designed to discourage individuals from accessing their retirement savings before reaching retirement age. These penalties are intended to preserve the tax advantages of retirement accounts and encourage long-term savings behavior.

It’s essential to consider the potential impact of early withdrawal penalties before cashing out your retirement plan. Evaluate your financial situation and explore alternative options to meet your immediate financial needs without depleting your retirement savings.

Considerations Before Cashing Out

Before deciding to cash out your retirement plan, consider the following factors:

  1. Financial Need: Evaluate the urgency and necessity of the funds. If you have alternative sources of income or emergency savings, tapping into your retirement savings should be a last resort.

  2. Long-Term Retirement Goals: Assess the long-term impact of cashing out your plan. Calculate the potential growth of your savings over time and consider the implications for your retirement income.

  3. Tax Planning and Strategies: Consult with a tax advisor or financial planner to explore potential tax planning strategies. They can help you minimize the tax consequences and identify alternative solutions to meet your financial needs.

Special Considerations for Different Types of Retirement Plans

Rolling Over a 401(k)

A 401(k) rollover involves transferring funds from your former employer’s 401(k) plan into an IRA or a new employer’s retirement plan. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Rollover Options: You can choose between a direct rollover, where the funds are transferred directly to the IRA or new plan, or an indirect rollover, where you receive the funds and deposit them into the new account within 60 days.

  2. Roth 401(k) vs. Traditional 401(k): If your former employer’s plan offers a Roth 401(k) option, you have the choice to roll over your funds into a Roth IRA or a Roth 401(k). Consider the tax implications and your long-term retirement goals before making a decision.

  3. Employer Match Contributions: If your former employer provided matching contributions, ensure that your new plan allows for transferring these funds and takes advantage of any potential matching benefits.

Rolling Over a 403(b)

A 403(b) rollover involves transferring funds from your former employer’s 403(b) plan into an IRA or a new employer’s retirement plan. Consider the following factors:

  1. Eligible Rollover Options: Not all 403(b) plans may allow for rollovers. Verify with your former employer or plan administrator if a rollover and the options are permitted.

  2. Institutional vs. Retail Investment Options: Some 403(b) plans offer institutionally priced or unique investment options that may have lower costs than retail investment options. Evaluate the investment choices available in your new plan or IRA to ensure they align with your investment objectives.

  3. Nonprofit and Governmental 403(b) Plans: If employed by a nonprofit organization or a government agency, consult a tax advisor to understand any unique rules or considerations for your specific 403(b) plan.

Rolling Over a 457(b)

A 457(b) rollover involves transferring funds from your former employer’s 457(b) plan into an IRA or a new employer’s retirement plan. Here are some important considerations:

  1. Rollover Eligibility: Rollover options for 457(b) plans may vary depending on whether they are governmental or non-governmental. Consult with your former employer or plan administrator to determine if a rollover is permitted.

  2. In-Service Rollovers: Some 457(b) plans may allow for in-service rollovers, which means you can roll over your funds while still employed. Evaluate this option if you want to consolidate your retirement savings or have better investment choices.

  3. Employer Contributions: Review the rules regarding employer contributions in your 457(b) plan. Determine if your new employer’s retirement plan allows for the transfer of these funds to take advantage of potential matching contributions.

Factors to Consider When Making a Rollover Decision

When deciding on a rollover strategy, consider the following factors to ensure you make an informed decision:

Plan Rules and Restrictions

Review the rules and restrictions of your former employer’s plan and your new employer’s plan or IRA. Understand any limitations on withdrawals, loans, investment options, and fees. Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions to make an informed choice.

Fees and Expenses

Compare the fees and expenses associated with your employer-sponsored plan, IRA providers, and new employer’s plan. Be aware of account maintenance fees, investment management fees, transaction costs, and other charges that may impact your long-term returns.

Investment Choices and Flexibility

Evaluate the investment options available in each retirement plan or IRA. Consider your risk tolerance, investment objectives, and preferences when selecting investment vehicles that align with your financial goals. Ensure that you have the flexibility to adjust your investment strategy as needed.

Tax Implications and Planning

Consult with a tax advisor or financial planner to understand the potential tax implications of each rollover option. Consider factors such as pre-tax and after-tax contributions, Roth conversions, net unrealized appreciation (NUA), and required minimum distributions (RMDs). Develop a tax-efficient strategy that maximizes your retirement savings while minimizing tax liabilities.

How to Initiate a Rollover

To initiate a rollover, follow these steps:

  1. Contact Your Former Employer or Plan Administrator: Contact your former employer or plan administrator to request the necessary paperwork and instructions for initiating a rollover. They will guide you through the process and provide the required forms.

  2. Complete the Necessary Paperwork: Fill out the forms accurately, providing all the requested information. Ensure that you understand the terms and conditions of the rollover, including any fees, penalties, or tax implications.

  3. Direct Rollover vs. Indirect Rollover: Decide whether you want to opt for a direct or indirect rollover. A direct rollover involves transferring funds from your employer-sponsored plan to your IRA or new plan. In contrast, an indirect rollover requires receiving the funds and depositing them into the new account within 60 days.

  4. Follow the Instructions Provided: Follow the instructions provided by your employer or plan administrator to ensure a smooth and efficient rollover process. Double-check the accuracy of all information before submitting the paperwork.

Seeking Professional Advice and Guidance

Making decisions about your retirement savings can be complex, and seeking professional advice and guidance is essential. Consider the following:

Consulting with Financial Advisors

Consulting with a financial advisor specializing in retirement planning can provide valuable insights and guidance. They can help you evaluate your options, assess the implications of each decision, and develop a comprehensive retirement strategy that aligns with your goals.

Tax Planning and Considerations

Given the potential tax implications of a rollover, consulting with a tax advisor who can provide personalized tax planning advice is crucial. They can help you navigate the tax rules, explore tax-efficient strategies, and ensure compliance with IRS regulations.

Understanding Your Unique Financial Situation

Each individual’s financial situation is unique, and it’s essential to consider your specific needs, goals, and circumstances when making a rollover decision. Seek advice from professionals who can assess your financial picture and provide tailored recommendations based on your specific requirements.

Monitoring and Managing Your Rollover

After completing a rollover, monitoring and managing your retirement savings effectively is crucial. Consider the following steps:

Regularly Reviewing Your Investment Strategy

Review and reassess your investment strategy regularly to ensure it remains aligned with your financial goals. Monitor the performance of your investments, diversify your portfolio, and make adjustments as necessary. Stay informed about market trends and economic conditions that may impact your retirement savings.

Updating Beneficiary Designations

Review and update your beneficiary designations periodically, especially after significant life events such as marriage, divorce, or childbirth. Ensure that your retirement savings will be distributed according to your wishes and that your loved ones are protected.

Keeping Track of Tax Documents and Reporting

Maintain organized records of all tax documents related to your retirement accounts. Keep track of Form 1099-R, which reports distributions from retirement plans and any other relevant tax forms. Report your retirement account activity accurately on your tax returns to avoid any potential IRS penalties or audits.


Deciding what to do with your retirement plan from a past employer is a significant financial decision. A rollover can give you greater control, flexibility, and potential tax advantages. By understanding the various options available to you and considering the factors outlined in this guide, you can make an informed decision that aligns with your retirement goals.

Remember, retirement planning is a complex process, and seeking professional advice from financial advisors and tax professionals is crucial. They can guide you through the intricacies of rollovers, tax planning, and ongoing management of your retirement savings. With careful consideration and expert guidance, you can confidently navigate the rollover process and secure your financial future.

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