Changing jobs or retiring? Do not forget your retirement savings!

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Your retirement savings plan offers you several choices for managing the money that has accumulated in your account when you decide to change jobs or retire. This may include amounts you have contributed, the vested portion of any amounts your employer has contributed, plus any earnings on those contributions.
You will want to think carefully before making any decisions about withdrawing the money in your retirement plan, as some choices may entail greater tax liability than others.

A look at some of your choices

Generally, you have three options for managing the money in your retirement plan when you change jobs or retire:
1. Keep Your Money in the Plan:
  • Generally available if your account balance was more than $5,000 when you terminated employment
  • Continue to enjoy tax-deferred compounding of any investment earnings
  • Continue to receive regular account statements and performance reports
  • While new contributions are not allowed, you will still have control over how your money is invested among the plan's investment options
  • Minimum distributions must begin by April 1 of the calendar year following the year in which you attain age 72Footnote 1
If you are retiring, you might choose this option if your spouse is still working or if you have other sources of retirement income. If you're starting your own business when you leave your current job, keeping your retirement money in your former company's plan may help protect your retirement assets from creditors, should your new venture run into unforeseen trouble.
2. Move Your Money to Another Retirement Account:
  • You can move your money into another qualified retirement account, such as an IRA, or, if you're changing jobs, your new employer's retirement savings plan
  • With a "direct rollover," the money goes directly from your former employer's retirement plan to the IRA or new plan, and you never touch your money. With this method, you continue to defer taxes on the full amount of your plan savings.Footnote 2
3. Take a Cash Distribution:
  • Have your money paid to you in one lump sum, or in installments of a fixed amount over a set number of years, depending on your plan's provisions
  • Choosing to take part or all of your money when you retire or change jobs is considered a cash distribution, which is subject to ordinary income tax and a mandatory tax withholding of 20%
  • Individuals under age 59½ (55 in some circumstances) could also be liable for a 10% additional federal tax on early withdrawal, in addition to state taxes and penalties
To avoid paying taxes and/or penalties on a cash distribution consider redepositing your money within 60 days to an IRA or your new employer's qualified plan. In this case you'd have to make up the 20% withholding from your own pocket, but any excess tax payment would be refunded when you file your regular income tax return.
The potential cost of a cash distribution
Distribution – 20% Tax WithholdingFootnote 3 = Cash Amount Before Any Actual Taxes
$10,000 – $2,000 $8,000

Retirees should consider potential tax consequences

  • If you're retiring, and opt for the lump-sum option, you will want to determine if there are any favorable tax rules that apply to your distribution, such as the minimum distribution allowance or 10-year forward income averaging if you were born before January 2, 1936
  • To qualify as a lump-sum distribution, you must receive all the money in all of your retirement plans with a company (including 401(k), profit sharing, and stock purchase plans) within a one-year period
There may be other distribution options available. Contact your plan administrator for information on all options available under your plan. Then be sure to consult a qualified tax professional before making decisions.

Footnote 1 This age was increased from 70½, effective January 1, 2020. Account holders who turned 70½ before that date are subject to the old rules.

The required beginning date for RMDs is age 72. You may defer your first RMD until April 1st in the year after you turn age 72, but then you'd be required to take two distributions in that year. Failure to take all or part of an RMD results in a 50% additional tax applicable to the amount of the RMD not withdrawn. Consult your tax advisor for more information on your personal circumstances.
Footnote 2 Fees and investment expenses may be higher in an IRA than in an employer-sponsored plan. Rolling over employer stock from a retirement plan to an IRA may end up ultimately causing higher taxes on any potential gains on that stock. Also, if you plan to work past age 72, an employer-sponsored plan may allow you to delay required minimum distributions.

Footnote 3 The tax rate applied to the distribution would be your actual marginal income tax rate plus any additional federal taxes. State taxes may also be due.

You have choices about what to do with your employer-sponsored retirement plan accounts. Depending on your financial circumstances, needs and goals, you may choose to roll over to an IRA or convert to a Roth IRA, roll over an employer-sponsored plan from your old job to your new employer, take a distribution, or leave the account where it is. Each choice may offer different investment options and services, fees and expenses, withdrawal options, required minimum distributions, tax treatment (particularly with reference to employer stock), and different types of protection from creditors and legal judgments. These are complex choices and should be considered with care. For more information visit our rollover page or call Merrill at 888.637.3343.
Merrill, its affiliates, and financial advisors do not provide legal, tax, or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.
The example presented is hypothetical and does not reflect specific strategies developed for actual clients. It is for illustrative purposes only.

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