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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 5, 2006

If you move on, donít cash out retirement plan

By Michelle Singletary

Are you looking for a new position in the new year?

If so, what are your plans for the money you've accumulated in your 401(k), 403b, or similar employer retirement plan?

If you've already decided you won't touch it, you're in smart company. A recent study found that an increasing percentage of workers participating in employment-based retirement plans are rolling over all of their lump-sum distributions into another retirement savings account when they leave a job. Fewer people than in past surveys are spending the money, according to a study by the nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute.

EBRI found that 43.4 percent of lump-sum recipients who received their most recent distribution through 2003 placed all of that money in a tax-qualified savings plan such as an individual retirement account or another employment-based plan. This was up from 19.3 percent through 1993.

Can I get an "Amen"? I know I've tried my best to discourage people from pulling money out of their retirement fund.

It's tempting to spend some or all of the money you've amassed in your retirement plan. There for the swiping is a pot of cash and you have a pile of bills. But it's a mistake, especially if you are early in your career.

For example, as the EBRI study points out, a 25-year-old who leaves an employer after accumulating a $5,000 account balance would have about $24,600 at age 65, assuming a constant 4 percent rate of return compounded monthly. That's not a bad payoff for leaving $5,000 alone, and it could be more if you get a higher return over the years.

So let's go over your options for your retirement money if you change jobs. You can cash out. If you have more than $5,000 in your retirement account, you can leave the money where it is. You could roll the money over into the retirement plan offered by your new employer (if that is allowed). Or you may decide to put the money into a tax deferred Individual Retirement Account.

As far as the first option, unless your financial situation is dire ó as in, no money for food ó don't cash out. You will take a big tax hit for withdrawing the money before you turn 59 1/2, plus you will pay a penalty. The federal government imposes a 10 percent penalty to discourage people from using these funds for anything other than retirement.

Although EBRI found that an increasing percentage of people aren't cashing out, far too many people still are.

According to research by Hewitt Associates, a human resources services firm, of the nearly 200,000 workers they studied who participate in their 401(k) plans, 45 percent elected to take cash distributions once they left their jobs. The remainder either kept their savings in their current employer's 401(k) plan (32 percent) or rolled the money over to a qualified IRA or other retirement plan (23 percent).

As for your second option, keeping the money in your old employer's plan is the hassle-free choice. If you're happy with your investment choices in your old plan, then stay put.

However, if there was a matching option, you won't be eligible any more and you will lose the ability to borrow from this pot of money if loans were allowed by your former employer.

Your third option: Roll over the money into another qualified retirement plan offered by your new employer. Before choosing this option, you should check the investment options at your new job. Employer-sponsored plans vary greatly. Some have a great many options, others are very limited.

Finally, you can shift your retirement money into an IRA. If you choose this option, you'll have complete control over how the money is invested. If you roll over the money into an IRA, be sure your former employer sends a check directly to the financial institution setting up your IRA. Otherwise, if you get a distribution check ó even if you plan to roll it over ó your former employer is required to withhold 20 percent for federal income tax purposes.

OK, so you're clear on one thing, right? Don't cash out. After that your choices are numerous.