If you've lost your job, or are changing jobs, you may be wondering what to do with your 401(k) plan account. It's important to understand your options, as there are potential tax consequences at stake.
If you leave your job (voluntarily or involuntarily), you'll be entitled to a distribution of your vested balance. Your vested balance always includes your own contributions (pre-tax, after-tax, and Roth) and typically any investment earnings on those amounts. It also includes employer contributions (and earnings) that have satisfied your plan's vesting schedule.
In general, you must be 100% vested in your employer's contributions after 3 years of service ("cliff vesting"), or you must vest gradually, 20% per year until you're fully vested after 6 years ("graded vesting"). Plans can have faster vesting schedules, and some even have 100% immediate vesting. You'll also be 100% vested once you've reached your plan's normal retirement age.
It's important for you to understand how your particular plan's vesting schedule works, because you'll forfeit any employer contributions that haven't vested by the time you leave your job. Your summary plan description (SPD) will spell out how the vesting schedule for your particular plan works. If you don't have one, ask your plan administrator for it. If you're on the cusp of vesting, it may make sense to wait a bit before leaving, if you have that luxury.
While this pool of dollars may look attractive, don't spend it unless you absolutely need to. If you take a distribution you'll be taxed, at ordinary income tax rates, on the entire value of your account except for any after-tax or Roth 401(k) contributions you've made. And, if you're not yet age 55, an additional 10% penalty may apply to the taxable portion of your payout. (Special rules may apply if you receive a lump-sum distribution and you were born before 1936, or if the lump-sum includes employer stock.)
If your vested balance is more than $5,000, you can leave your money in your employer's plan at least until you reach the plan's normal retirement age (typically age 65). But your employer must also allow you to make a direct rollover to an IRA or to another employer's 401(k) plan. As the name suggests, in a direct rollover the money passes directly from your 401(k) plan account to the IRA or other plan. This is preferable to a "60-day rollover," where you get the check and then roll the money over yourself, because your employer has to withhold 20% of the taxable portion of a 60-day rollover. You can still roll over the entire amount of your distribution, but you'll need to come up with the 20% that's been withheld until you recapture that amount when you file your income tax return.
Assuming both options are available to you, there's no right or wrong answer to this question. There are strong arguments to be made on both sides. You need to weigh all of the factors, and make a decision based on your own needs and priorities. It's best to have a professional assist you with this, since the decision you make may have significant consequences — both now and in the future.
When evaluating whether to initiate a rollover always be sure to (1) ask about possible surrender charges that may be imposed by your employer plan, or new surrender charges that your IRA may impose, (2) compare investment fees and expenses charged by your IRA (and investment funds) with those charged by your employer plan (if any), and (3) understand any accumulated rights or guarantees that you may be giving up by transferring funds out of your employer plan.
In general, if you have an outstanding plan loan, you'll need to pay it back, or the outstanding balance will be taxed as if it had been distributed to you in cash. If you can't pay the loan back before you leave, you'll still have 60 days to roll over the amount that's been treated as a distribution to your IRA. Of course, you'll need to come up with the dollars from other sources.
In some cases, you have no choice — you need to use the funds. If so, try to minimize the tax impact. For example, if you have nontaxable after-tax contributions in your account, keep in mind that you can roll over just the taxable portion of your distribution and keep the nontaxable portion for yourself.