Take control of that old 401(k)

  • Article by: CHRIS FARRELL
  • Updated: February 19, 2011 - 10:18 PM

Q After losing my job about seven years ago and moving into a new field, I never got around to doing anything with my old 401(k). The company that I worked for has just been bought by a bigger competitor, so I am wondering what may come of my old 401(k). Should I move the assets into my Fidelity account where I also have a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA? Should I see a financial planner?

A I'm not worried that the new merged company will do anything wrong with the money. There are a lot of regulatory and legal safeguards. And most managements take the responsibility of overseeing their employee pensions seriously. The account is safe but, then again, it has been a long time since you've been on the payroll. That's why I usually advocate taking control of the money through a rollover IRA. It's your money. You'll pay attention to it and you get to choose the investment company and investment options for the money, not your former employer.

There are no tax consequences or penalties imposed on a rollover so long as the money goes directly from your former employer into the rollover IRA account (which is why it's also called a trustee-to-trustee rollover). Since companies have different procedures and forms to fill out, I would check with the folks in human resources before doing anything. Get their check list of things to do. The same goes with the investment company with which you've chosen to place your rollover IRA.

As to your second question, I'm wary of most people working with a financial planner. That said, the expertise of a planner can be valuable at major transition points, such as retirement. So, part of my answer is by all means consult with a planner to help you think through your options if you're approaching a transition point.

Problem is, almost anyone can call themselves a financial planner even though their actual money expertise may be narrow, such as stocks or insurance. That's why I favor fee-only certified financial planners (CFPs). They have the education and the knowledge to deal with all aspects of household finances. The best place to start looking for a planner is with your friends and colleagues. If that doesn't work, you can contact the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors at www.napfa.org. It's the main organization for fee-only planners. A financial planning group that targets middle income households is the Garrett Planning Network at www.garrett planningnetwork.com.

Chris Farrell is economics editor for "Marketplace Money." Send questions to cfarrell@mpr.org.

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