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What to Do With Your 401(k) if You Lose Your Job Due to COVID-19

By Katie Brockman – Apr 27, 2020 at 7:34AM

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You have a few options for what to do with your money.

Every week, millions of workers are laid off or furloughed. Approximately 4.4 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance in the week ending April 18, bringing the 5-week total to roughly 26 million people.

Nobody knows exactly how long the coronavirus pandemic will last, and many more workers could face a job loss in the coming weeks. If you've been laid off or are worried about being laid off in the future, the good news is that your retirement savings are safe. You won't lose your 401(k) if you lose your job, but it is wise to have a plan for what you want to do with this money.

You have a few options when it comes to your 401(k) after a job loss, and each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

Young woman sitting on steps wearing a mask with box of her belongings next to her.

Image source: Getty Images

Option 1: Keep your money where it is

Your 401(k) is tied to your employer, so if you lose your job, you typically can't continue contributing to this account. However, many plans allow you to keep your savings in your 401(k), and your money will continue growing for as long as it's invested.

The exception, however, is if you have very little money in your 401(k). Some employers won't allow you to keep your money in your 401(k) if you have less than a certain amount, typically a few thousand dollars. If you have less than that amount in your account, your employer may force you to withdraw your funds or help you roll it over to an IRA. But if you have more than a few thousand dollars stashed away, you can typically keep your money invested in your 401(k).

Option 2: Roll it over to an IRA or new 401(k)

If you find a new job that offers a 401(k) plan, you can opt to roll your money from your old 401(k) into your new one. Because jobs are scarce right now, though, you may not be able to find a new job right away. In that case, you can roll your funds over to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA.

Traditional IRAs and Roth IRAs are similar in many regards, but they have one key difference: How your money is taxed. Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deferred, meaning you won't pay taxes upfront but you will pay income taxes when you withdraw your money. Roth IRAs are the opposite: You will pay taxes when you make the initial contributions, but your withdrawals are tax-free. Which option you choose will depend on your personal preferences. If you want an immediate tax deduction, a traditional IRA might be the way to go. Or if you want tax-free retirement income, you might choose a Roth IRA instead.

Option 3: Withdraw your savings

If you don't want to keep your money in your old 401(k) or roll it over to a new account, you also have the option to cash out your savings. Typically, this is the most expensive and least recommended option because you'll generally have to pay income taxes and a 10% penalty on the amount you withdraw if you're under age 59-1/2. 

The recently passed CARES Act loosened some of these regulations, however, making it a little easier to access your cash. If you withdraw your retirement fund savings for coronavirus-related expenses, you can avoid paying the 10% penalty and will also have three years to pay the income taxes on your withdrawal.

Which of these options is right for you?

The option you choose will depend largely on your financial situation. If money is tight and you can't afford to invest right now, you may decide to leave your money where it is and simply let it continue to grow over time. Or if you have cash to spare and want to keep saving for retirement (which is a fantastic idea if you can afford it), then rolling your money over to an IRA will allow you to continue investing.

While it's generally best to avoid cashing out your 401(k) when you leave your job, in some cases, it might not be a bad idea. Because the 10% penalty is waived and you have more time to pay income taxes under the CARES Act, it's less expensive now to withdraw your savings. Just make sure it's absolutely necessary, because withdrawing your savings now will impact your long-term retirement strategy. If you choose this option, don't withdraw all your savings if you don't have to. In some cases, a better option may be to roll your money over to an IRA and then withdraw only what you need.

Losing a job is always tough, but you have several options when it comes to managing your retirement savings after a job loss. By choosing the right option for you, you can make the most of your money and protect your retirement savings as much as possible.

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