Moving savings between 401(k) plans could soon be automatic

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Moving savings between 401(k) plans could soon be automatic

Workers changing jobs could have their retirement savings automatically transferred to plans at their new jobs under a proposed federal rule.

The U.S. Department of Labor is considering allowing Retirement Clearinghouse LLC to run a program that automatically transfers small 401(k) balances into individual retirement accounts when employees leave a job. Then, when they start a new job, RCH would automatically transfer the savings into the new employer's 401(k) plan.

Why this matters

This would help solve what Retirement Clearinghouse calls a "cash-out crisis." Many people cash out their 401(k) savings when they change jobs rather than going through the process of transferring them to a new job. This hurts their long-term savings, the company said in a statement. Spencer Williams, CEO of Retirement Clearinghouse, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

How the program works

The RCH Auto Portability Program rolls over balances of less than $5,000 from the old 401(k) plans into an IRA. The company sends a letter to departing employees tell them their 401(k) will be placed into an IRA unless they respond.

The company uses technology called "locate, match and transfer" to detect when the IRA owner starts a new job. It then moves the money from the IRA into the new job's retirement plan. Employers and plan providers can sign up for the program.

Dennis R. Nolte, a certified financial planner and vice president of Seacoast Investment Services, said most planners would be happy to be rid of the headache of dealing with small leftover account balances. More programs like this could help make sure retirement savings stay invested in a plan, he said.

Are there downsides?

Jon L. Ten Haagen, certified financial planner and founder of Ten Haagen Financial Group, said he wouldn't want a company deciding on its own what to do with his retirement savings. Moving your money into a new company's 401(k) isn't always the best choice, he said, because it "may or may not be a piece of garbage." The company managing the IRA in between jobs may also not make the right investment choices for you, he said.

Companies should educate departing workers about their best options for their retirement savings instead.

"There are many questions to be answered," Ten Haagen said.

What's next?

The Department of Labor is taking comments on whether to allow RCH to take a fee when it transfers money to a new employer's account without the IRA holders explicit permission. The comment period lasts until Dec. 24.

Starting a new job? Aside from dealing with your old retirement plan, don't forget these money tasks.

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