Planning for retirement involves making many important decisions, including what to do with your retirement plan when you leave a job. When it comes to your retirement plan, the decisions you make today can have a major impact on your future. One of the key choices you'll face is what to do with your retirement savings when you leave a job. Should you roll it over into a new account or take a distribution? Let's explore these choices to help you make an educated decision.

What is a rollover?

A rollover involves transferring the funds from your employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k), into another qualified retirement account. This transfer allows your retirement savings to continue growing without interruption. A rollover has many advantages:

  • Consolidation: Rollovers can help consolidate multiple accounts, making it easier to manage your finances and keep track of your investments.
  • Continuity: In the case of retirement accounts like 401(k)s or IRAs, a rollover can maintain the tax-advantaged status of your savings, allowing you to continue growing your retirement funds without incurring taxes or penalties.
  • Investment Options: Rollovers can provide access to a wider range of investment options than what may be available in your current account, allowing you to diversify your portfolio and potentially achieve better returns.
  • Cost Savings: Some accounts may have high fees or expenses that can be reduced by rolling over to a different account with lower costs.
  • Control: Rollovers can give you more control over your investments, allowing you to choose investment options that align with your financial goals and risk tolerance.
  • Beneficiary Designations: Rollovers can provide an opportunity to review and update beneficiary designations, ensuring that your assets are distributed according to your wishes in the event of your death.
  • Tax Benefit: If you roll over your retirement savings directly from one qualified account to another, you won't incur any taxes or early withdrawal penalties. This preserves your savings and keeps more money working for your future.

What is a distribution?

On the other hand, taking a distribution involves withdrawing the funds from your retirement account and either spending or reinvesting them elsewhere. While this option provides immediate access to your savings, it comes with tax implications and potential penalties.

One common reason for taking a distribution is financial need. If you're facing a cash crunch or unexpected expenses, tapping into your retirement savings may be necessary. However, it's important to consider the long-term impact of this decision, as early withdrawals can significantly reduce your retirement savings. The most common place a distribution occurs is when you're retiring and need to start using your retirement savings to cover expenses. In this case, you'll need to carefully plan your withdrawals to ensure they last throughout your retirement years.

It's important to note that distributions from retirement accounts are generally subject to income tax. Additionally, if you're under age 59½, you may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty unless you qualify for an exception. Not all retirement distributions are taxed. The tax treatment of retirement distributions depends on several factors, including the type of retirement account, the age of the account holder, and the purpose of the distribution. Here are some key points:

  • Traditional IRA and 401(k): Distributions from traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts are generally subject to income tax. The tax is based on the account holder's ordinary income tax rate at the time of the distribution.
  • Roth IRA and Roth 401(k): Qualified distributions from Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) accounts are typically tax-free. To be considered qualified, the distribution must meet certain requirements, such as the account being open for at least five years and the account holder being at least 59½ years old, disabled, or using the funds for a first-time home purchase (up to a certain limit).
  • Early Withdrawal Penalties: In addition to income tax, early distributions (before age 59½) from traditional IRAs and 401(k)s may be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty, unless an exception applies.
  • Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs): Traditional IRAs and most employer-sponsored retirement plans (such as 401(k)s) require the account holder to start taking RMDs after reaching age 72 (or 73 if the account owner reaches age 72 in 2023 or later). These distributions are generally subject to income tax.
  • Employer Contributions: If your employer made contributions to your retirement account (such as matching contributions to a 401(k)), those contributions are typically not taxed until you withdraw them.
  • Non-Deductible Contributions: If you made non-deductible contributions to a traditional IRA, a portion of your distribution may not be taxable. The non-taxable portion is calculated based on the ratio of non-deductible contributions to the total IRA balance.

It's important to consult with a tax advisor or financial planner to understand the tax implications of retirement distributions in your specific situation.

Which option is right for you?

Choosing between a rollover and a distribution depends on your financial situation and retirement goals. If you're looking to maintain the tax-advantaged status of your retirement savings and want more investment options, a rollover may be the better choice.

On the other hand, if you need immediate access to your retirement savings or are retiring and need to start using your funds for living expenses, a distribution may be more appropriate. However, it's important to carefully consider the tax implications and potential penalties before making a decision.

Deciding whether to rollover or take a distribution from your retirement plan is an important decision that can have long-term implications for your financial future. By weighing the pros and cons of each option you can make an informed choice that aligns with your retirement goals.