Q&A: When to merge 401(k) accounts

Dear Liz: I have $640,000 in a previous employer’s 401(k) and $100,000 in my new employer’s plan. Do you recommend I merge the two? Both funds offer similar investment options. My only motivation is based on simplifying paperwork during retirement, although there may be other advantages I am not aware of.

Answer: The choice of investment options matters less than what you pay for them. If your current plan offers cheaper choices, rolling your previous account into your current one makes sense if your employer allows that.

If the previous employer’s plan is cheaper, though, leaving the money where it is can make more sense. Once you actually reach retirement age you can decide whether to consolidate the plans or roll them into an IRA.

IRAs give you a wider array of investment options, but keeping the money in 401(k) accounts has other advantages. Larger 401(k)s often offer access to cheaper, institutional funds that aren’t available to retail investors in their IRAs. A 401(k) may offer more asset protection, depending on your state’s laws, plus you can begin withdrawals as early as age 55 without penalty if you no longer work for that employer.

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