5 Common 401(k) Rollover Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

By Ellevest Team

New job, new you. (Heck yeah.) But also ... old job, old 401(k). So what should you do with it? 

One option is a 401(k) rollover, which means transferring your investments from your old account to a new retirement account — typically your employer's 401(k) and an IRA. (Check out our 401(k) rollover explainer for all the deets.)

But because 401(k)s and IRAs come with tax benefits, they also come with rules and deadlines. And those can really cost you. So if you’re thinking about 401(k) rollover options, here’s a handy list of common mistakes we see at Ellevest — and how to avoid them once you decide what to do with your old 401(k).

401(k) rollover mistake #1: Not doing it at all

There are a few reasons why simply leaving your old 401(k) where it is might not be your best bet. First of all, you won’t be able to contribute to it anymore, so it’s easier to accidentally lose track of it. And knowing exactly how much money you have invested (and where) is a big part of establishing control over your financial life (as well as a key component of financial wellness).

But second — and maybe more important — rolling over your old 401(k) (especially into an IRA) could give you more investment options. Yes, that old 401(k) probably gives you a set of different investments to pick from … but you’re limited to just that set. An IRA can usually give you more freedom to invest intentionally or choose less expensive securities.

Plus, if you decide to go for a  401(k) rollover somewhere new, you can shop around for a company that charges less in administrative fees than your old 401(k) provider does. That can have a big impact on your bottom line. And keep in mind that if your old employer was helping out with the cost of those fees while you worked for them, it’s reasonable to assume that they’ll stop now. 

That said, there are some situations where it might make sense, like if your old 401(k) has abnormally low fees or unique investment options. Crunch the numbers before deciding to move your money.

401(k) rollover mistake #2: Missing the 60-day deadline

So, the #1 thing you almost always don’t want to do with an old 401(k) is just cash it out. That comes with massive tax penalties that could cost you up to 50% of the value of your account. (Ouch.)

If you take the money out of your old 401(k), including for an indirect rollover (more on that below), you can’t sleep on the process. You have 60 days to get it deposited into a new retirement account — otherwise, the IRS will assume you cashed out and hit you with those taxes. (Although there is a short list of reasons they might forgive you — life happens, after all.) 

Also good to know: If your old 401(k) had less than $1,000 in it when you left your job, your employer might just send you a check. If that happens, open a new IRA or 401(k) ASAP so you can invest it before the 60 days are up.

401(k) rollover mistake #3: Making the check out for the wrong amount

When it comes to rollovers, there are two main types: direct rollovers and indirect rollovers. With a direct 401(k) rollover, your old account administrator writes a check to your new account administrator, so the funds go directly to them. 

With an indirect 401(k) rollover, on the other hand, you take on the burden of passing the money along. Your old account administrator will write a check to you, and then you’ll deposit that money in your bank account so you can write a check to your new account administrator (all within 60 days). 

And there’s a potential snag here: The check from your old 401(k) is going to be short 20% of the balance in your account. That money gets withheld to essentially “pre-pay” your taxes in case you miss the 60-day deadline. But the check you write to your new account administrator has to be for the full amount of the 401(k) rollover. That means you have to come up with the cash to cover that 20%. (If you deposit the money into a new retirement account before the 60-day deadline, you’ll get your 20% back at tax time.)

So if you use an indirect 401(k) rollover, be super careful with this step. In fact, we recommend doing everything you can to avoid the indirect route — a direct 401(k) rollover leaves a lot less room for error. Plus, the IRS limits you to one indirect rollover a year, but there’s no limit on direct rollovers.

401(k) rollover mistake #4: Not telling your new investment company first

Whether you use a direct or an indirect 401(k) rollover, the first step should always be to actually open your account with your new account administrator and tell them that you’re planning to roll your old retirement investments over. That way, they’ll know your money is coming their way and be prepared to receive it.

If they get a check by surprise, there’s a chance they might think it’s a regular contribution, not a rollover. That would mean you’d get hit by those massive taxes we mentioned above, and it would count toward — and possibly push you over — your annual contribution limit, too (whereas a rollover wouldn’t). Basically, the whole thing would probably get pretty messy.

401(k) rollover mistake #5: Not talking to a tax pro about company stock

If your old company gave you company stock as part of your compensation, and if that stock is inside your old 401(k), there are some tax benefits you’d give up if you rolled those shares into a different account. So if you’re in this situation, ask a tax pro for help figuring out what’s best for you before you roll over your whole 401(k).

If you think a 401(k) rollover is right for you, Ellevest can help. When you start the process, we’ll even take a look at your fees and let you know if we’ll be the less expensive choice for you. And our concierge team will be there to help you every step of the way, so you can invest for the retirement of your dreams. Get started today.


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Ellevest Team

Ellevest helps women build and manage their wealth through goal-based investing, financial planning, and wealth management. Our mission is to get more money in the hands of women.