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Roll Over a Retirement Account: The Procrastinator’s Guide

When you delay rolling over an old retirement account, you're setting yourself up for a loss in savings and returns.

Articles by Betterment Editors
By the Editorial Staff Betterment Resource Center Published Jul. 26, 2013
Published Jul. 26, 2013
3 min read
  • When you put off a rollover, that Inertia can lead you to lose out on key savings and returns.

  • To make the rollover process manageable, break down the process into small steps.

I am ‘fessing up: Inertia is threatening to derail my retirement plan. When I changed jobs, it also meant I stopped contributing to my old 401(k) plan. Two months later I have yet to roll over that account. Worse,  I haven’t re-established a monthly automatic deposit to save part of each paycheck for retirement.

It’s procrastination, pure and simple. I know there is a real cost to this kind of inertia. It’s not just fees that are nibbling away at my old savings plan, I am also not stashing away crucial savings and accruing key returns. (And to add insult to self-injury, I am not helping my tax situation either because I am not putting money into a tax-deferred account.)

Investor inertia is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s one the reasons many employers default workers into a savings plan. Unfortunately, when you move jobs or have other life events, there is no default in place to help you continue saving for retirement. We are left to our own devices to roll over accounts—a process that even a recent government report called “inefficient.”

When it comes to 401(k) plans there are four alternatives: You can leave the money in your old 401(k) plan (although you may not be able to contribute to it); move it to your new employer’s 401(k) plan; roll it over to an IRA; or cash out the 401(k) balance. The last option is likely to come with a big tax bill. If your company doesn’t offer a solid 401(k) plan, you might want to roll over into an IRA. (It might be helpful to first read our post on the benefits of rolling over your 401(k) into an IRA.)

How a Delay Hurts Your Savings Plan

Losing a few months of savings here and there won’t derail a sound retirement plan, but it’s too easy to let procrastination turn a few months into a few years. This is one reason it’s so important to save automatically every month. As Dan Egan, Betterment’s director of behavioral finance says, “Be your best, automatically, through good habits.”

So while I have let some time slide, that doesn’t mean I can’t get back to my good habits. When I have a task to do—like a rollover— it is easier for me to make a checklist of all the small steps I need to take rather than stare at the mountain. I am sharing my to do list with you to give myself a kick in the pants – and hopefully you too.

A Rollover To-Do List

1. Know the options. Find out what kind of plan you have and what your choices are. If you have a new 401(k) plan with a new employer, you might be able to do a direct rollover of your old 401(k) into that plan. If not, you might consider rolling over to an IRA.

2. Decide on the right kind of IRA. If you’re rolling over a tax-deferred account, like a 401(k), you’ll likely want to rollover into a traditional IRA, which is also a tax-deferred account. However, this may depend on your income tax situation. (See our post on the difference between a Roth and a traditional IRA.)

3. Open an IRA account. Betterment offers both traditional and Roth IRAs as do many other financial service providers. Check the fees and requirements carefully. Some providers advertise incentives and ‘no-fee IRAs’ but these could come with some catches, like minimum balance requirements or transaction charges for withdrawing your money down the road. You can learn more about Betterment’s pricing plan.

4. Pick up the phone. Yes, this is the hardest part. Put the phone call on your calendar. Make the time. Call your provider to determine how to close your existing 401(k) account and request a of rollover the entire balance.  Plans do vary so at Betterment our Rollover Concierge can assist on these calls if you aren’t sure about the options. If you switch IRA companies, your old provider will typically send a check directly to the new account provider.

5. Roll it over. Once you have spoken with your provider, you’ll know best how to move forward. My best advice to myself—and to you—is to schedule time to actually do the research and make the phone calls.

I am going to go through these steps and get my savings back on track. Will you? Let’s do it together.

When deciding whether to roll over a retirement account, you should carefully consider your personal situation and preferences. The information on this page is being provided for general informational purposes and is not intended to be an individualized recommendation that you take any particular action.

Factors that you should consider in evaluating a potential rollover include: available investment options, fees and expenses, services, withdrawal penalties, protections from creditors and legal judgments, required minimum distributions, and treatment of employer stock. Before deciding to roll over, you should research the details of your current retirement account and consult tax and other advisors with any questions about your personal situation.

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