What Becomes of Your 401(k) When You Leave a Job?

What Happens to Your 401(k) When You Leave Your Job? | FAIRWINDS

When you leave a job, you generally have four options for handling your 401(k) savings: keep it with your previous employer, roll it into an IRA, transfer it to a new employer’s plan, or cash it out. Your options may depend on the balance in your account when you leave your employer. Here’s a detailed look at each option:

Understanding Vesting

Before making any decisions, understand the concept of vesting. Your vested balance includes your contributions (which are always vested) and the employer contributions that have become yours over time. For example, if your employer’s vesting schedule grants you ownership of 20% of its contributions each year, after five years, you’d own 100% of those contributions. Leaving before full vesting means forfeiting a portion of the employer’s contributions.

1. Keep It with Your Previous Employer

You can choose to leave your 401(k) with your former employer if you’re satisfied with the investment options, fees, and overall performance. However, you won’t be able to make additional contributions and will need to manage this account separately from any new employer-sponsored plans.

2. Roll It Over into a New Employer’s 401(k)

Transferring your 401(k) to a new employer’s plan, known as a “direct rollover” or “trustee-to-trustee transfer,” can simplify managing your retirement savings. Review the investment options and fees of your new employer’s plan to ensure it aligns with your financial goals.

3. Roll It Over into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

Rolling your 401(k) into an IRA offers more control over your investment choices. There are two main types of IRAs: Traditional IRA and Roth IRA. IRAs typically offer a wider range of investment options compared to employer-sponsored plans, allowing you to choose from various stocks, bonds, mutual funds, and other investments. Consider tax advantages, eligibility, and withdrawal rules when choosing this option.

4. Cash Out the 401(k)

Cashing out your 401(k) is an option, but it’s generally discouraged due to potential tax implications and penalties. The amount you withdraw is considered taxable income, and if you’re under 59½, you may also incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Additionally, you may owe state income taxes on the distribution.

Factors to Consider Before Making a Decision

  • Vesting: Check the vesting status of your employer’s contributions. You may forfeit some or all of the employer’s contributions if you’re not fully vested.
  • Tax Implications: Consider the tax consequences of each option. Rolling over to a traditional IRA or a new 401(k) typically has no immediate tax impact.
  • Investment Goals: Assess your investment goals, risk tolerance, and preferences to choose the best option for your 401(k) funds.
  • Financial Advice: Consult a financial advisor to understand the implications of each choice and to make an informed decision based on your financial situation.


When you leave a job, your 401(k) remains where it is until you decide its fate. Your options include leaving it with your former employer, rolling it over to a new retirement account, or cashing it out. Carefully weigh the pros and cons of each option to make the best choice for your financial well-being and retirement goals.

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