Think twice about a 401k->IRA rollover

One of the great things about studying for (and passing!) the CFP exam has been the exposure to a wide range of interesting minutia about various financial planning topics. I’ve learned more about the ins and outs of insurance, estate planning, and taxation than I ever thought I would.

One of the interesting tidbits I want to talk about today are some of the potential downsides to rolling over your 401k to an IRA.


Before we jump into the specifics of 401ks, we need to talk about ERISA. ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974) is a federal law that sets minimum standards for most private pension/retirement plans. ERISA was largely in response to some high-profile pension bankruptcies, such as the Studebaker pension plan failure in 1963. When Studebaker went bankrupt it was discovered that Studebaker’s pension plan it was tragically underfunded. In fact, it was so poorly funded that the vast majority of employees received anywhere from just 15% to 0% of their promised benefits.

At that time there was virtually no regulation of pension programs. Pension programs were largely intermingled with the employer’s funds. If your employer become insolvent (as with Studebaker) you’d not only lose your job, but all of your retirement benefits.

ERISA created rules requiring minimum funding for pension programs, it put in place the PBGC (Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation), and added creditor/bankruptcy protection for individual retirement plans.

Bankruptcy protection

Here’s the interesting thing – qualified plans (like your 401k) have UNLIMITED bankruptcy protection. No matter how much money you have in your 401k, it can’t be taken by creditors. There are only 2 occasions when money can be taken from your 401k without your approval:

  • To pay the IRS
  • As part of a divorce settlement/court order

In short – the money in your 401k is pretty safe.

IRAs are not nearly as secure.

Prior to 2005 a regular IRA had no bankruptcy protection. The Bankruptcy Reform Act of 2005 provides a regular IRA with $1,283,025 of bankruptcy protection (this amount was initially set at $1M and is updated for inflation every 3 years).

For most people this is a distinction without a difference. After all, in 2016 the average 401k balance was a mere $92,500. The average IRA account balance for pre-retirees was $100k. These averages are well below the threshold of bankruptcy protection for either type of account.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. We would assume that the average balance grows as a participant ages, so it’s likely that the average older employee could be closer to the limit than a younger employee.

Let’s check the numbers.

Here’s a breakdown of average 401k balance by age:

And here’s a breakdown of the average IRA balance by age:

Although it’s true that older people have larger retirement accounts, it turns out that the average person with the average account balance is well protected by either an IRA or 401k, even at the older (and wealthier) end of the spectrum.

But if you’re reading this blog you, by definition, aren’t average (at least not financially). You’re somebody who is trying to gain control over your finances. There’s a good chance that at retirement you’ll have significantly more than $1.3M in today’s dollars.

To test this I ran some conservative projections for 401k and IRAs accounts to see if the cap on protection for an IRA would be an issue for the average above-average person.

Note: all of the calculations below are in today’s dollars. The yearly contribution limits for 401k and IRA accounts are adjusted annually for inflation, which means they will always be the same in 2017 dollars.

401k projection

Let’s assume a person doesn’t start saving until 25 years old, and then starts saving just $5,000/year. He increases his savings by $1,000/year for the next 13 years until he finally hits the max of $18,000/year at 38. He contributes $18,000/year until he turns 50, when he’s eligible for an additional $6,000/year “catch up” contribution.

We’ll assume a reasonable 8%/year return. Finally, we will assume no employer match. Any sort of match would obviously increase the numbers below.

Here’s what we get:

Age 401k Total
25 $5,000.00 $5,000.00
26 $6,000.00 $11,400.00
27 $7,000.00 $19,312.00
28 $8,000.00 $28,856.96
29 $9,000.00 $40,165.52
30 $10,000.00 $53,378.76
31 $11,000.00 $68,649.06
32 $12,000.00 $86,140.98
33 $13,000.00 $106,032.26
34 $14,000.00 $128,514.84
35 $15,000.00 $153,796.03
36 $16,000.00 $182,099.71
37 $17,000.00 $213,667.69
38 $18,000.00 $248,761.11
39 $18,000.00 $286,661.99
40 $18,000.00 $327,594.95
41 $18,000.00 $371,802.55
42 $18,000.00 $419,546.75
43 $18,000.00 $471,110.49
44 $18,000.00 $526,799.33
45 $18,000.00 $586,943.28
46 $18,000.00 $651,898.74
47 $18,000.00 $722,050.64
48 $18,000.00 $797,814.69
49 $18,000.00 $879,639.87
50 $24,000.00 $974,011.06
51 $24,000.00 $1,075,931.94
52 $24,000.00 $1,186,006.50
53 $24,000.00 $1,304,887.02
54 $24,000.00 $1,433,277.98
55 $24,000.00 $1,571,940.22
56 $24,000.00 $1,721,695.43
57 $24,000.00 $1,883,431.07
58 $24,000.00 $2,058,105.56
59 $24,000.00 $2,246,754.00
60 $24,000.00 $2,450,494.32
61 $24,000.00 $2,670,533.87
62 $24,000.00 $2,908,176.57
63 $24,000.00 $3,164,830.70
64 $24,000.00 $3,442,017.16
65 $24,000.00 $3,741,378.53
66 $24,000.00 $4,064,689.81
67 $24,000.00 $4,413,867.00
68 $24,000.00 $4,790,979.36
69 $24,000.00 $5,198,261.70
70 $24,000.00 $5,638,127.64

By the time this person hits “normal” retirement age of 65 he has over $3.7M in his 401k. At 70 he has $5.6M. That’s well in excess of the IRA protection limit of $1,283,025. In fact, the limit of IRA protection is exceeded when this person is just 53 years old.

IRA projection

Exceeding the IRA limit is a bit tougher, as the max contribution is only $5,500 plus an additional $1,000 catch up contribution starting at 50. Here’s what the value of an IRA would be, assuming it was opened at age 25, funded to the maximum level every year, and enjoyed an 8% annual return:

Age IRA Total
25 $5,500.00 $5,500.00
26 $5,500.00 $11,440.00
27 $5,500.00 $17,855.20
28 $5,500.00 $24,783.62
29 $5,500.00 $32,266.31
30 $5,500.00 $40,347.61
31 $5,500.00 $49,075.42
32 $5,500.00 $58,501.45
33 $5,500.00 $68,681.57
34 $5,500.00 $79,676.09
35 $5,500.00 $91,550.18
36 $5,500.00 $104,374.20
37 $5,500.00 $118,224.13
38 $5,500.00 $133,182.06
39 $5,500.00 $149,336.63
40 $5,500.00 $166,783.56
41 $5,500.00 $185,626.24
42 $5,500.00 $205,976.34
43 $5,500.00 $227,954.45
44 $5,500.00 $251,690.80
45 $5,500.00 $277,326.07
46 $5,500.00 $305,012.15
47 $5,500.00 $334,913.13
48 $5,500.00 $367,206.18
49 $5,500.00 $402,082.67
50 $6,500.00 $440,749.28
51 $6,500.00 $482,509.23
52 $6,500.00 $527,609.96
53 $6,500.00 $576,318.76
54 $6,500.00 $628,924.26
55 $6,500.00 $685,738.20
56 $6,500.00 $747,097.26
57 $6,500.00 $813,365.04
58 $6,500.00 $884,934.24
59 $6,500.00 $962,228.98
60 $6,500.00 $1,045,707.30
61 $6,500.00 $1,135,863.89
62 $6,500.00 $1,233,233.00
63 $6,500.00 $1,338,391.64
64 $6,500.00 $1,451,962.97
65 $6,500.00 $1,574,620.00
66 $6,500.00 $1,707,089.60
67 $6,500.00 $1,850,156.77
68 $6,500.00 $2,004,669.31
69 $6,500.00 $2,171,542.86
70 $6,500.00 $2,351,766.29

The IRA balance doesn’t exceed the limit of bankruptcy protection until age 62.

The rollover

Most people roll their 401k over to an IRA when they leave their employer. Imagine you worked until 65 years old and retired. According to the first table, you’d have around $3.7M in your 401k. If you roll that over to your IRA you’ve suddenly put everything over $1,283,025 at risk in the event that you need to declare bankruptcy.

Obviously nobody expects to need to file bankruptcy, but the reality is that it happens. The bankruptcy protection of a 401k is especially important if you have a high balance in your account and:

  • You have little or no medical insurance – the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the US is due to medical bills. A chronic health issue or a single major medical issue combined with little or no health insurance can easily result in bankruptcy.
  • You either are or want to be an entrepreneur – when you’re starting a business you usually need to personally sign for/guarantee business loans (nobody is going to loan money to a business with no sales, profits, or credit history). If your business fails you might end up needing to declare bankruptcy.

Other advantages of a 401k

Although the bankruptcy protection is the biggest advantage of a 401k over an IRA, it’s not the only one. 401ks also offer superior flexibility in two ways.

401k loans

Most people know that one of the advantages to a 401k is that, if your plan allows it, you can take loans. Unlike with an IRA, you don’t need to use the loan for an approved purpose. You can withdraw money penalty-free from an IRA for college costs, to buy a home, for health insurance and/or medical expenses, and if you become disabled. A 401k loan can be used for anything.

A 401k is allowed to offer loans of up to $50,000 or 1/2 of your account balance, whichever is less. If you have a balance of $30,000 you could take a loan for up to $15,000 (1/2 the account balance). If you have a balance of $300,000 you could take a loan for up to $50,000 ($50,000 max). If you DO take a loan you have to pay it back with interest, and the loan must be completely repaid within 5 years (although this can be extended if you’re using the loan to purchase a house). The interest rate is low and there’s no credit check or underwriting process for the loan. This makes the 401k loan a reasonable backup plan if you need more cash than is available in your emergency fund.

Withdrawals at age 55 instead of 59.5

Another little-known advantage to a 401k is that you can make penalty-free withdrawals starting at 55 if you’ve separated from service (where “separated from service” includes quitting, getting laid off, getting fired, or any other way of leaving your employer). This is a big difference from an IRA, which doesn’t allow penalty-free withdrawals until age 59.5.

They key is that you must leave service anytime during or after the calendar year in which you turn 55. If you take early retirement at 54 then you wouldn’t be able to pull money from your 401k until you’re 59.5. But if you wait until the year you turn 55 to separate from service you’ll be able to start taking withdrawals immediately.

Note that this doesn’t mean you must retire. You could leave employer A in the year you turn 55 and start making penalty-free withdrawals from your employer A 401k, even if you then go work for employer B.

Another wrinkle – you’re only able to access the 401k of the employer you left at 55 or older. Let me explain. Let’s say you worked at employer X from age 22 to 50. You then leave your job with employer X, leave your 401k with employer X, and go to work at employer Y from age 50 to 55. From age 50 to 55 you contribute the maximum to your 401k at employer Y.

You then leave your job at employer Y. You are able to access the 401k balance from employer Y immediately (because you’re 55 and you just separated from service from employer Y). However, your 401k at employer X can’t be touched until you’re 59.5 years old (you weren’t 55 or older when you separated from service from employer X).

The solution is to ensure that every time you change jobs you roll your 401k from your previous employer to your new employer. In the example above you’d roll your 401k from employer X to employer Y. When you leave employer Y at age 55 your entire balance from employer X and employer Y would be available for penalty-free withdrawal.


I’m not talking about asset allocation here. I’m talking about taking advantage of the fact that 401ks and IRAs have different rules & regulations. For example, I’m a big believer in having both traditional and Roth IRAs for the simple fact that nobody knows what taxes will be in the future. If taxes in the future are much lower than today then a traditional IRA would be a better choice. If taxes in the future are much higher than today then a Roth IRA would be a better choice.

Similarly, there’s no way to know how the laws for 401ks and IRAs might diverge in the future. Owning both types of accounts provides a bit of protection in case the laws for one type of account become decidedly less favorable in the future.

The major 401k disadvantage

There is one significant downside of a 401k – fewer investment options. The investment options in a 401k are usually limited to whatever your employer makes available. In fact, in order to comply with ERISA diversification and fiduciary requirements, your employer (or 401k provider) only needs to provide 3 options: a cash/cash equivalent (like a money market), an equity fund (S&P index, for example) and a fixed income option (usually a bond fund).

By contrast, an IRA allows you to invest in just about anything – individual stocks, mutual funds, bonds, real estate, even private equity collectibles if that’s your thing. And, in fact, it’s this sort of flexibility that allows some people to amass an IRA worth more than $100M.


It wasn’t until I started learning about specific rules for 401ks vs. IRAs that I realized that in many cases a 401k might be superior to an IRA.

Unfortunately, most financial advisors won’t tell you this, because most financial advisors make money based on assets under management (AUM). The firm that manages your IRA is always going to suggest you “consolidate” your accounts by rolling your 401k over to your IRA. This is great for them, as the more of your money they manage the more money they make.

My advice is to think carefully before rolling your 401k over to an IRA. Depending on your specific situation you might be better off leaving your money in your 401k.


Have you  always rolled over your 401 to an IRA when you changed jobs? Did you know about the advantages of the 401k vs an IRA?



9 thoughts on “Think twice about a 401k->IRA rollover

  1. I had absolutely no idea about the bankruptcy protection rules in the US. Very interesting.

    I have always rolled my 401(k) when changing employers for the very reason you’ve stated above – a bit restricting. I wanted the ability to invest in whatever, trade more 2x/month and to 72(t) money to subsidize monthly life insurance premiums [72(t) being phased out to pay for life insurance, but I am hoping to be grandfathered].

    I know, I know….everyone hates the guy who has life insurance, but I am a firm believer in taxes going up in the future (social security is a great example of why taxes are going to go up), so I would rather pay the tax today and get the money into a tax-free vehicle.

    What a great post that I am forwarding on. I feel like I just got free CFP advice!

    Thank you for this.

    1. Well, I WILL give you some free CFP advice – tell me more about your life insurance policy. Is it term? Permanent? Who owns it? Who is the beneficiary? What do you expect the size of your overall estate to be when you pass away?

      The answer to these questions will determine whether or not the payout from your life insurance policy is or is not actually tax-free. Also, life insurance is a tool – if somebody tells you it’s bad or good then they probably have an agenda and/or something to sell you.

      Also, the 72(t) “substantially equal periodic payments” rule applies to 401k accounts as well as IRAs, so that’s a wash.

        1. And for the record, I am not trying to self-promote here by providing a link to my site. I have no ads or affiliate links, this is just a fun little hobby.

          Looking forward to having someone shoot holes in this so I can reply back.

          1. Church – I read the article on your website that you linked to and I have a number of questions. First, how much are you paying per year on your life insurance policy and how much of it goes to the cash balance and how much goes to the death benefit? What is the death benefit?

            The issue that many people don’t understand is that although the death benefit from a life insurance policy is tax-free to the beneficiary, if the deceased was also the owner of the policy then the value of the death benefit is included in the deceased’s estate.

            It looks like this won’t matter to you – at the end of June your net worth was $599k. As you probably know, both you and your wife have a lifetime gift and estate tax exemption of $5.49M each. I’m going to assume that the net worth you publish on your website is your combined net worth (you and your wife). I’m also going to assume that means your net worth is about $250k. Even if your life insurance policy is $1M, this means your estate is only $1.25M, which means you’d pay no estate taxes.

            This can hurt somebody who has high net worth (>$5.49M). If you have a net worth of $5M and you own a $1M life insurance policy on yourself you’ll have an estate of $6M, which means you’ll be paying estate taxes (even though the beneficiary doesn’t pay taxes on the $1M death benefit they receive).

            As for your plan – I’m curious how it’s better than just investing on margin, or taking a portfolio loan, then using term life insurance for the actual insurance portion of the plan.

  2. Again, thanks for the reply and great discussion. Addressing your points, in order:

    Point-1: Policies Dollars & Death Benefit. I am now up to saving ~7% of my income in whole life (still maxing out the 401k and saving/investing otherwise). The total death benefit of all policies is a few $100k shy of the $5.49mm threshold. Assuming no dividends, the cash value is expected to be $1.1MM at 50 yrs old. At 59.5 yrs $2.44MM. Add in dividends and those numbers are far greater. So at 50, maybe I throttle back in life and start taking loans, tax-free, to fund my life. I can always repay with my tax-advantaged accounts at 59.5 yrs old and then push the restart button.

    This cash isn’t just going to sit around for my beneficiary and never was the purpose when I opened up the policies. I’ll be taking loans against to fund our life because the growth will always outpace the loans + interest as well as the tax free aspect of the loans.

    Point-2: Estate Taxes. Great point about the estate tax issue. What is going to happen is that my usage of the loan feature is going to reduce the death benefit. Since the estate tax code considers “the value of amount receivables from life insurance” (i.e. death benefit minus any loans) I will not be triggering this threshold because of my use of the loans. If I start getting to any such level, I will look into transferring ownership into a trust, but highly doubt it will ever get to that.

    Point-3: Net Worth. The net worth on the site is strictly my own. My wife is back in school for a career change until sometime in 2019 and has ZERO net worth. I like what we’ve been able to do with living off one income in NYC, putting her through school, and continue to save/invest even at a modest rate. It will be a better day when she starts to earn and save.

    Point-4: Margin Investing or Portfolio Loans. Although investing on margin boosts purchasing power, I would think most brokers wouldn’t allow people with limited investment experience to undertake such a risky strategy – causing another Great Depression.

    Portfolio loans, in my opinion, never measure up to a ‘non-direct recognition’ loan simply because I lose dollars working in two places at once – a lost opportunity in portfolio loan scenario.

    Buy term invest the diff is great for some, but the way I see it, term is quite expensive after 60-65 years of age and there are taxes on the cap gain and dividends from the investment. Both should be contemplated and netted from investment portfolio. I would be willing to bet that, virtually no one, buys term and invest the difference.

    Sorry for the lengthy reply, this topic is never less than 500 words

    1. One comment about buying term and investing the difference – yes, term is more expensive when you’re older, but the point is that very few people actually need life insurance when they are 70 years old. After all, the original goal of life insurance was to replace your earning power so your family would not be destitute if you died. By the time you’re 70 you don’t have any earning power to replace.

      A few years ago I purchased a 20-year term-life policy. The premiums are $400/year for $750,000 of coverage. By the time the 20-year level premium period expires I’ll be in my late 50’s and my kids will be in college (the costs of which will be funded via 529 accounts). At that point I will likely no longer need life insurance.

      I’m curious – given that I’ve never heard of anybody else doing what you’re doing, what are the reasons to NOT take your approach?

  3. Yes, 70-year-olds don’t require insurance to replace purchasing power; however, I would think they would want to make non-spousal beneficiaries whole from the taxes on inherited assets (i.e. an IRA). This would help setup future generations beyond your children, a legacy if you will.

    Sure, one of the goals of permanent life insurance is to replace earning power, and at the same time, it creates a banking system. That, above anything else, is beyond valuable to me.

    To your question, the reason NOT to take my approach, is that it is slow to accumulate cash (head wind), but once a policy matures, it is all tail-wind. Therefore, this isn’t a product/strategy for just anyone. I started this at a very young age, after contributing to retirement accounts, but not having enough for a down payment to purchase a rental property. Now that the policies are mature, it just a matter of finding the right place for this cash. In the meantime, it continues to grow like any other savings account.

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