In the majority of cases, direct rollovers and transfers make the most sense when moving money between retirement accounts. It's all about shielding your money from income taxes and early withdrawal penalties. With a trustee-to-trustee transfer or a direct rollover of 401(k) funds, the IRS can't touch your retirement money. But with an indirect rollover, there is much more potential for making a mistake that could cost you thousands of dollars in income tax plus a 10 percent early withdrawal penalty.
But no single investment strategy is right for everyone. Some investors might like the idea of getting their hands on a large chunk of cash, even if it's only for 60 days. Maybe you have an exciting short-term investment opportunity with the potential for large returns. If you choose the indirect rollover option, your 401(k) administrator will cut you a check with a promise that you'll re-invest the full amount in a new IRA in 60 days or less. In the mean time, you are free to use that money as you please. The risk, of course, is that you could lose the money. If you can't come up with the full amount in 60 days, you'll owe income tax plus penalties.
Another option is to do nothing. No rollover, no transfer, just let the money stay in your old 401(k). If you have $5,000 or more in the account, you usually don't have to contact the administrator. But if you have less than $5,000, some 401(k) plans automatically liquidate the funds, so you have to act quickly to secure them [source: Fidelity].
What are the advantages of leaving your money in a 401(k)? Large 401(k) plans negotiate competitively priced investment options that you might not get with an IRA. Or you anticipate getting a job at another corporation soon and decide to leave it there until you can transfer it. Older workers have another reason. If you lose a job at 55 or older, you can make penalty-free withdrawals from a 401(k) even before age 59½. You can't do that with an IRA. However, you can't add any further money to the 401(k) once you stop working at the company [source: Fidelity].
For lots more retirement investment and planning tips, check out the related HowStuffWorks links below.
Author's Note: Retirement Accounts: Transfer vs. Rollover
Researching this article made me appreciate the importance of semantics -- knowing the right definition for the right word. I think that when most of us hear the phrase "401(k) rollover," we assume that it's a direct transfer of funds from one retirement account to another. But that's only true of direct rollovers. If you lose a job and tell your 401(k) plan administrator that you want to "roll over" your money to an IRA, he or she is required to provide information about the tax implications of a direct vs. indirect rollover, but that doesn't mean that the information will be clear or that you'll fully grasp the difference. And when you get that huge check in the mail, you might not know about 20 percent withholdings and 60 day limits and the other IRS mumbo jumbo that could land you in deep financial trouble. The difference between direct rollover, indirect rollover and transfer might seem like semantics, but it's really a big deal.
- Brandon, Emily. "10 Important Ages for Retirement Planning." US News & World Report. Feb. 21, 2012 (Feb. 14, 2013) http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2012/02/21/10-important-ages-for-retirement-planning
- Brandon, Emily. "Smart Strategies for 401(k) Rollovers to IRAs." US News & World Report. June 4, 2012 (Feb. 14, 2013) http://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/articles/2012/06/04/smart-strategies-for-401k-rollovers-to-iras?page=2
- Charles Schwab. "Rollover IRA FAQs" (Feb. 20, 2013) http://www.schwab.com/public/schwab/investing/accounts_products/accounts/ira/rollover_ira/faq
- Fidelity. "What to do with an old 401(k)." Jan. 17, 2013 (Feb. 15, 2013) https://www.fidelity.com/viewpoints/401k-options
- Internal Revenue Service. "Instructions for Forms 1099-R and 5498" (Feb. 20, 2013) http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i1099r.pdf
- Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Topics – Rollovers of Retirement Plan Distributions" (Feb. 20, 2013) http://www.irs.gov/Retirement-Plans/Plan-Participant,-Employee/Retirement-Topics---Rollovers-of-Retirement-Plan-Distributions
- Internal Revenue Service. "Transfers." Instructions for Forms 1099-R and 5498 (Feb. 14, 2013) http://www.irs.gov/instructions/i1099r/ar02.html#d0e654
- Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plans FAQs Regarding Hardship Distributions" (Feb. 15, 2013) http://www.irs.gov/Retirement-Plans/Retirement-Plans-FAQs-regarding-Hardship-Distributions
- Lewis, Roy. "IRA Rollovers vs. Transfers, Part II." The Motley Fool (Feb. 13, 2013) http://www.fool.com/school/taxes/1999/taxes990625.htm