More Americans are leaving their money in 401(k) plans after retirement — should you?

Published: Nov 2, 2019 11:04 a.m. ET

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A year into retirement, 55% of Fidelity participants haven’t touched their accounts

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Retirement can be about relaxing, but make sure your money is in the right accounts first.

Millions of workers contribute to a 401(k) plan so they can have more money when they retire — and then sometimes, when they get to that point in their lives, they don’t touch those accounts for another few years.

More than half of workers — 55% — are choosing to leave their assets in their former employer’s 401(k) plan a year into retirement, according to Fidelity data on its workplace retirement accounts. Four years ago, that figure was 45%. They may leaving their accounts in place because their 401(k) plans have low fees or they want to stay with the same administrators and managers of the plan (in this case, Fidelity and their former employers), said Dave Gray, head of workplace retirement offerings and platforms.

Some retirees may also not be sure what to do with that money, such as rolling it over into another account or consolidating all of their 401(k) plans.

See: What are the odds the market will crash during your retirement years?

As with most financial planning, the decision on whether to keep 401(k) assets in a former employer’s plan or roll it over into an individual retirement plan or other investment vehicle is a personal one. Participants must consider fees tacked on to any account they choose, as well as investment options available in those plans (not all 401(k) plans have the same fund choices, which may make one more favorable for your needs than another).

People shouldn’t roll over an account or consolidate just to do so, but after reviewing costs and features, it might make sense, said Patrick Beagle, owner and president of WealthCrest Financial Services in Springfield, Va. “I see clients all the time [who] have several plans,” he said. “If they intend to work past 70, I strongly urge them to stay in a 401(k), and consolidate all the old into the new so they can defer distribution on the whole lot.”

Retirees should review alternatives, such as individual retirement accounts, which offer more investment choices than 401(k) plans do, said Glenn Downing, founder and principal of CameronDowning in Miami. “401(k) plans are great accumulation vehicles, but can be cumbersome for distributions,” he said. It’s important to analyze not just the number of funds available but the quality of those funds.

Some retirees may not touch their 401(k) plans because they don’t need the money yet. Wealthier clients avoid withdrawing from 401(k) plans until they’re 70½ years old, which is around the time they must withdraw required minimum distributions (or face a penalty of 50% of whatever amount they were supposed to withdraw).

Also see: How to figure out when to claim Social Security

Before rolling over a 401(k) into another type of account, participants should ask themselves if they can replace the same fund choices — or quality of fund choices — for the same price, and if they think they’ll ever need to borrow money from their retirement assets for current expenses, advises George Papadopoulos, a financial adviser at the Fee-Only Planner in Novi, Mich. Retirees should review not only fees but features of the plan, including loans and how much someone can withdraw without penalty.

There are times when they should keep their assets parked in a 401(k), too, such as if they intend to leave the workforce between 55 and 59½ years old, said Matthew Fatz, a financial adviser at Thrive Wealth in Wayne, Pa. Under the Internal Revenue Service’s “Rule of 55,” employers who have been laid off, fired or otherwise left their job after 55 can take money out of their current 401(k) plan without incurring the 10% penalty others would face for withdrawing from an account before they’re 59½ years old. “If you know you’ll need to use your 401(k) or 403(b) for living expenses prior to 59½, you might consider leaving the assets in the plan even if fees are higher or investment options are less than ideal.”

Alessandra Malito is a personal finance reporter based in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @malito_ali.

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