Most employees know that when they leave their employer they can “rollover” their 401(k), 403(b), 457 and other retirement plans tax-free to an IRA. (They can also take a taxable withdrawal or roll it into a retirement plan at their new employer if that plan permits). For the purpose of this article, when I refer to a 401(k) plan, I am also referring to most other retirement plans such as a 403(b) and 457.
In Service Withdrawal
Fewer people are aware that once they turn 59-1/2, even if they are still working, IRS regulations allow them to roll their 401(k) tax free into an IRA or take a taxable distribution. This is frequently termed an “in service” withdrawal.
To be clear, while IRS rules permit this, not every 401(k) plan permits it, so if this is something you wish to do you would need to check with your employer.
Items to consider
Just because an in service withdrawal / rollover is available does not mean it is desirable. Here are a few things you may want to consider.
Number of investment choices Quite often the number of investment choices in a 401(k) plan are limited while many more investment options are available in IRA’s from most well known custodians and brokerage firms. Yet, as long as the choices are good ones, a limited number may not be a significant handicap. Research has shown that it is more difficult to reach a decision when there are more options to choose from.
Cost Costs of 401(k) plans are declining, but can vary widely from one plan to another. In general, the costs associated with plans of larger employers are lower than the costs associated with those of smaller employers. You may have more flexibility with an IRA since you can establish an account at a low cost custodian and use cost effective ETF’s and institutional funds. To determine the costs associated with your 401(k) you need to consider both the operating costs of the individual funds as well as other costs that are disclosed in Form 408(b) (2) provided to you each year by your employer.
Your Age For those age 55 and over, IRS rules allow 401(k) and other retirement plan participants who have stopped working to take distributions without a 10% IRS penalty, however IRA owners must wait until age 59-1/2 before taking withdrawals to avoid the 10% penalty.
Required Minimum Distributions (RMD’s) If employees continue to work beyond 70-1/2, and do not own 5% or more of the company (i.e. they do not own 5% of the employer’s stock), they are not required to take required minimum distributions (RMD’s) from their 401(k). However, owners of traditional (non Roth) IRA’s must take an RMD once they turn 70-1/2. So if you plan to continue to work beyond age 70, it may make tax sense to refrain from doing an in-service withdrawal.
Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA) If you have large gains in your employers stock in your 401(k) plan you are able to withdraw and pay tax at capital gain tax rates on only the gain. This is called “net unrealized appreciation” or NUA. However if you sell the stock or transfer it to an IRA, the entire value of the stock would be taxed at ordinary income tax rates when withdrawn from an IRA.
Roths You generally have the same opportunity to do an in service withdrawal / rollover of a Roth 401(k) to a Roth IRA.
In service withdrawals are advantageous for some individuals, but it is important to consider all aspects of your situation before acting.