When to Consolidate Your 401 (k) Plans – and When Not
Losing a 401 (k) is easier than it looks – all it takes is a change of job, exiting the workforce, or stopping contributions to remember a retirement.
Retirement Tip of the Week: To keep track of your savings and make sure your investments are working for you until retirement, consider consolidating your accounts.
“The older we get, the more we forget and the harder it becomes to collect those funds and keep track of what you have,” said Linda Farinola, Certified Financial Planner and Partner at Princeton Financial Group. “Keep it simple.”
There are many factors to consider before merging assets into a new retirement plan or transferring them to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Workers must first see if they qualify for their new employer’s pension plan and if that plan allows for inbound shifts.
“The Summary Plan Document (SPD) will tell you everything you need to know about your employer’s plan,” said Amie Agamata, certified financial planner and member of the Financial Planning Association’s retirement income planning advisory board. “If the plan allows for shifts, it may be best to review and compare the old 401 (k) investment options and plan expenses with the new plan.”
See: Thinking of borrowing on your 401 (k)? When it makes sense to withdraw from your retirement account – and when it doesn’t
What you pay
One of the most important factors is the cost. Many 401 (k) plans have an administrative fee, or the available investment options may have additional fees. Advisors often suggest that savers find out about the funds they have in their retirement plans, if they have to pay excessive fees, as well as what additional fees they may be paying (perhaps without knowing it). These costs should also be weighed against the potential costs of any new plan.
What are you invested in
Fund choices are also critical. “If the fees are low, then we look at fund selection,” said Chris Hardy, chartered financial planner and founder of Paramount Investment Advisors. “If the fund choices are good, or especially if the funds are closed to new investors outside of the plan, it may be a good idea to keep the account there.” On the contrary, if another account may offer more attractive investment options, investors may find an additional incentive to transfer their money. An IRA with a large custodian will generally offer a “wide range of choices to align with your goals,” said Henry Hoang, certified financial planner and founder of Bright Wealth Advisors.
However, there are times when the original plan offers better fund options, so it may be a good idea for some investors to hold onto their assets.
Additionally, if workers enjoyed the company’s stock in an old plan, they may want to keep the stock in that account until they are ready and able to distribute it, Farinola said.
When you retire
Deadlines are also important. If a person is preparing to retire soon, they might want to combine everything into one account for the sake of simplicity, Hardy said.
“It’s more convenient to manage just one account,” Hoang said. Many investors will not actively monitor their accounts, review them regularly, or effectively build a portfolio. However, when retirement assets are merged, they can also consolidate future savings from other retirement plans.
The age at which a person plans to retire will also play a role in this decision. For example, 401 (k) plans provide a penalty for distributions before age 59 and a half, unless employees are with their current employer with a plan and leave their job at age 55 or later. People who fall into this category could opt out of their 401 (k) without penalty.
“In many cases, an investor would like to retain the flexibility of having this 55 year rule in case they need to access funds before the age of 59 and a half,” said Adam Wojtkowski, Chartered Financial Planner at Smith Salley & Associates.
Consolidating accounts will also make it much easier for the employee to take the minimum required distributions.
One reason not to consolidate an old and a new plan: if the worker does not intend to stay in their current plan for a long time, said Marco Rimassa, certified financial planner and founder of CFE Financial.
Have a question about your own retirement concerns? Read the MarketWatch column “Help me retire”
How much is in the account and where
Another factor to consider when considering consolidation is the size of the account. “For smaller accounts, it almost always makes sense to consolidate,” Farinola said.
The size of the company that hosts the money is also important, Farinola said. “If a business goes bankrupt, it can be difficult to find your funds 30 or 40 years later,” she said.
Some people, especially those with multiple floating retirement accounts, may want to hire a financial planner who can assess their goals, retirement needs, and whether or not their retirement plans need to be consolidated.
Nadine Burns, a certified financial planner and managing director of A New Path Financial, said a couple of clients offered her 16 different pension plans after changing jobs during their careers.
“They had no idea what they had where, how the investments matched their risk tolerance or what they were even invested in,” she said. “When we did an analysis, most plans had identical assets, with a very high correlation. The problem most people have when they leave a business is that they don’t keep an eye on their old plans, leave them behind and forget about them, and not understand how each fits into their overall retirement plan.
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