Q&A: Don’t do this with your retirement funds — unless you want to pay tax

Dear Liz: I recently switched jobs and realized that I have multiple 401(k) accounts from prior employers over the years that need to be consolidated. When I reached out to my current employer’s 401(k) administrator to understand the rollover process, they said I would actually need to have a paper check mailed to me for each prior employer and then arrange to mail the checks to them. Liz, we are talking about four checks totaling a very substantial amount of money! They said there is “no other way” to process the rollovers. I cannot understand why we are still dealing with such an archaic process in this day and age. Should I be worried or should I just go ahead and take care of this now since I don’t seem to have much say in the process?

Answer: You should definitely be worried, and you also shouldn’t assume that your employer’s 401(k) administrator understands the options at other companies. Getting a check in the mail from an old plan is not only unsafe but triggers a 20% withholding requirement.

If you want to avoid taxes and penalties on the missing 20%, you’d have to come up with that money out of your own pocket. (If you didn’t deposit the check with the new plan or in an IRA, you’d owe taxes and potentially penalties on all of the money.)

When you contact the old plan’s administrators, ask if they can do a “direct rollover” to your new 401(k) account. Often, the transfer can be made electronically.

Even if the old plan uses a paper check and the U.S. mail to deliver the funds, you can avoid the 20% withholding requirement if the check is made out to your new account rather than to you.

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Comments

  1. I am surprised this answer doesn’t advocate a bit stronger that the letter writer roll the old 401(k)s into an IRA at a more competent institution. There are plenty of great brokerages that will be eager to get the money, and so will take the lead on getting the money out of the old plans with minimal fuss on LW’s part.

    • Liz Weston says

      IRAs are certainly an option, although they’re often more expensive than a good large-company plan. Plus new disclosure requirements could slow down the process. Still, they’re worth considering, even if just as a bridge to get the money transferred to the employer’s plan.