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Financial Planning > Tax Planning

The Case for Skipping the 401(k)-to-IRA Rollover

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Few options may seem to exist when determining what to do with the funds a client has accumulated in an employer-sponsored 401(k) upon changing employers—and the most likely course of action is to roll those funds into an IRA.  While this strategy may be advisable in some cases, and can certainly serve to consolidate the client’s accounts to simplify management, there are important scenarios in which an IRA rollover is not the best move. In fact, in some instances rolling 401(k) funds into an IRA can actually present serious tax and non-tax disadvantages. 

To make the right decision and maximize the value of the client’s retirement nest egg, it’s necessary to evaluate all pieces of the puzzle before jumping for an IRA rollover.

Potential Tax Disadvantages

For a client who has reached age 55, but has not yet reached age 59 ½, the tax advantages of allowing the funds to remain in the 401(k) are clear. If the client were to roll the funds into his or her IRA, a 10% penalty tax would apply to any withdrawals made before the client reaches age 59 ½ (in addition to the otherwise applicable ordinary income tax rate).

A client who leaves employment once he or she has reached age 55 can withdraw funds from the 401(k) without incurring the 10% penalty for early withdrawals.

If a client plans to work past the age when distributions become mandatory (age 70 ½), he or she can avoid the required distributions by leaving the funds in the employer-sponsored 401(k). As long as the client continues to work and does not own 5% or more of the company, he or she can avoid taking distributions from a 401(k), thereby avoiding the associated income tax liability that those distributions generate.

Distributions from an IRA are required to begin when the client turns 70 ½, regardless of whether he or she has actually retired.

Further, if a client holds stock in his employer within the 401(k) plan, he or she may qualify for favorable tax treatment if the stock is left in the 401(k). Upon distribution from the 401(k), the sale may qualify for taxation at the client’s long-term capital gains tax rate, rather than the ordinary income tax rate that would apply to the appreciation on the stock if it was rolled into the IRA and later sold.

Non-Tax Considerations

Clients may wish to keep funds in an employer-sponsored 401(k) after leaving employment because it’s possible to borrow against those funds, though these loans are limited and must be repaid relatively quickly. Despite this, a loan against an IRA balance is not an option (penalties and taxes would apply to the IRA as though it were a distribution).

If the 401(k) offers attractive investment options, the client may wish to keep the funds invested in the 401(k). Further, if the 401(k) has lower than average fees, the client may be better off leaving the funds in the 401(k).

Because recently enacted disclosure rules require 401(k) plan sponsors to disclose administrative expenses and fees to participants, there is evidence to suggest that 401(k) fees may be decreasing.

Many employers who sponsor 401(k) plans offer financial guidance through workplace education programs at little or no cost to the employee. If the client has not yet left employment, and would otherwise have difficulty affording or obtaining sound and ongoing financial advice, this factor may weigh in favor of leaving his or her funds in the 401(k).


As is typically the case, the client’s individual situation will be key in determining whether a 401(k) to IRA rollover is advisable—but this is one area where it is especially important that advisors not jump to conclusions in determining the best course of action.

For additional retirement planning news articles and blogs, please see:

The Retirement Risk That the Models Miss

Retirement Plan Participants Need You — Now!

The Retirement Spending Account: Annuity Alternative

Originally published on Tax Facts Onlinethe premier resource providing practical, actionable and affordable coverage of the taxation of insurance, employee benefits, small business and individuals.    

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