Take it. Leave it. Roll it. These are the options employees have regarding their employer-sponsored retirement plan (ESRP) assets when they leave one company for another. Each option has consequences, and making the wrong choice could have significant impact on retirement savings goals.

ESRP assets typically account for the greatest percentage of one’s retirement savings. On average, affluent Americans have $260,000 invested in a former ESRP, according to the 2007 Investor Brandscape study of 4,000 affluent Americans by Cogent Research, Cambridge, Mass.

This represents 28% of their total investable assets, according to the study.

Leaving money behind in a former ESRP limits the control the person has with respect to asset allocation and future contributions. For example, when participants move from active to terminated status, they are no longer able to make future contributions to that plan. Rolling the money into either an IRA or a current employer’s plan can avoid taxes and penalties as well as allow the person to take more control over retirement savings.

Despite this flexibility, many affluent Americans are still choosing to leave the money behind in former employer plans, hence limiting investment choices, potential for increased earnings and, ultimately, the retirement nest egg. Whether this “choice” is due to unfamiliarity with rollover rules, the comfort of keeping retirement funds distributed as widely as possible, or even simply a consequence of not getting around to making a change, this lost opportunity is significant.

One-third of all affluent Americans have a significant portion of investable assets “parked” in a former ESRP instead of the current employer’s plan or an IRA, according to the 2007 study. When measured across the entire universe of affluent and high net worth investors, the average allocation to former ESRPs is 9.48%. (Such investors are defined here as having investable assets of $100,000 or more, including retirement accounts such as IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, etc. but excluding real estate.)

The result: Roughly $95 of every $1,000 invested is positioned for IRA rollover. This rises to $130 of every $1,000 for generation X workers, and $100 for baby boomers.

Further, of the 77% of affluent and high net worth investors who have assets in an ESRP, 44% have assets in a former employer’s plan.

For financial advisors, this presents a wealth of opportunity to capture those assets through IRA rollovers. For 401(k) administrators, it’s an opportunity to capture those assets by consolidating them in the investor’s current 401(k).

As indicated earlier, these assets can be significant. On average, affluent Americans have $260,000 invested in a former ESRP; Generation X, $171,000; and the Silent Generation, $313,000.

It is likely that broker/dealers, banks and insurance companies have not offered such investors a sufficiently compelling rationale for moving these assets.

If people are “parking” their assets in former plans because it’s the easiest thing to do, it is risky. Such an “out of sight, out of mind” approach means the investor may not be thinking about these assets or managing them as profitably as possible.

What is surprising is that 62% of the affluent who have left assets with a former ESRP did so despite having at least one current active advisor relationship.

The remaining 38% are mostly younger investors who say they do not currently use an advisor and are more likely than their older counterparts to leave assets behind. With long careers and growing employment options ahead of them, they are likely to experience more work changes than previous generations, making it easier for them to neglect consolidation of potentially many plans over the course of a career.

Financial advisors have a tremendous opportunity to gather and consolidate “parked” assets. Some strategies include:

o Don’t forget to ask. Consult with current clients about their assets in former ESRPs. Suggest consolidation of those assets into an IRA.

o Become a subject matter expert. Let prospective clients know that you specialize in rollovers. Position yourself as an expert in the marketplace.

o Offer free asset allocation and financial plans. Demonstrate the value you can offer a prospective client by showcasing your talents.

o Watch for companies in trouble. Keep an eye out for companies that may be closing a plant or experiencing a layoff. Offer to educate the employees on the choices they have with respect to their retirement plan savings or try to prospect them one on one.

Advisors who can offer solutions specifically designed to ease the rollover process and who can clearly communicate the advantages of doing so will be the big winners in obtaining these sizable assets.

Bruce Harrington is a managing director at Cogent Research, and Michelle Kingdon is a research analyst at Cogent Research, Cambridge, Mass.