Take it or Leave it?

By Nevin Adams, EBRI
Nevin Adams

Nevin Adams

While each situation is different, in my experience leaving a job brings with it nearly as much paperwork as joining a new employer. Granted, you’re not asked to wade through a kit of enrollment materials, and the number of options are generally fewer, but you do have to make certain benefits-related decisions, including the determination of what to do with your retirement plan distribution(s).

Unfortunately, even in the most amicable of partings, workers have traditionally lacked the particulars to facilitate a rollover to either an individual retirement account (IRA) or a subsequent employer’s retirement plan—and thus, the easiest thing to do was simply to request that distribution be paid to him or her in cash.

Over the years, a number of changes have been made to discourage the “leakage” of retirement savings at job change: Legal thresholds for mandatory distributions have been set; a requirement established that distributions between $1,000 and $5,000 on which instructions are not received either be rolled over into an IRA or left in the plan; and even the requirement that a 20 percent tax withholding would be applied to an eligible rollover distribution—unless the recipient elected to have the distribution paid in a direct rollover to an eligible retirement plan, including an IRA. All these have doubtless served to at least give pause to that individual distribution “calculus” at job change.

Indeed, a recent EBRI analysis¹ indicates that workers now taking a retirement plan distribution are doing a better job at holding on to those retirement savings than had those in the past. Among those who reported in 2012 ever having received a distribution, 48.1 percent reported rolling over at least some of their most recent distribution into another tax-qualified savings vehicle, and among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, the percentage who used any portion of it for consumption was also lower, at 15.7 percent (compared with 25.2 percent of those whose most recent distribution was received through 2003, and 38.3 percent through 1993).

As you might expect with the struggling economy, there was an uptick in the percentage of recipients through 2012 who used their lump sum for debts, business, and home expenses, and a decrease in the percentage saving in nontax-qualified vehicles relative to distributions through 2006. However, the EBRI analysis found that the percentage of lump-sum recipients who used the entire amount of their most recent distribution for tax-qualified savings has increased sharply since 1993: Well over 4 in 10 (45.2 percent) of those who received their most recent distribution through 2012 did so, compared with 19.3 percent of those who received their most recent distribution through 1993.

The EBRI report also notes that an important factor in the change in the relative percentages between the 1993 and 2012 data is the percentage of lump sums that were used for a single purpose. Consider that among those who received their most recent distribution through 2012, nearly all (94.0 percent) of those who rolled over at least some² of their most recent distribution did so for the entire amount.

There is both encouraging and disappointing news in the EBRI report findings: The data show that improvement has been made in the percentage of employment-based retirement plan participants rolling over all of their LSDs on job change, along with less frequent pure-consumption use of any of the distributions. However, the data also show that approximately 55 percent of those who took a lump-sum payment did not roll all of it into tax-qualified savings.

In common parlance, “Take it or leave it” is an ultimatum—an “either/or” proposition that frequently comes at the end, not the beginning, of a decision process. However, as the EBRI analysis indicates, for retirement plan participants it is a decision that can (certainly for younger workers, or those with significant balances) have a dramatic impact on their financial futures.

Notes
¹ The November 2013 EBRI Notes article, “Lump-Sum Distributions at Job Change, Distributions Through 2012,” is online here. 
² Two important factors in whether a lump-sum distribution is used exclusively for tax-qualified savings appear to be the age of the recipient and the size of the distribution. The likelihood of the distribution being rolled over entirely to tax-qualified savings increased with the age of the recipient at the time of receipt until age 64. Similarly, the larger the distribution, the more likely it was kept entirely in tax-qualified savings.

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