When you change jobs and abandon vested amounts in your 401(k), your former employer has to follow IRS rules and plan provisions for dealing with your account balance. Pursuant to these guidelines, the 401(k) plan may have a “force-out” provision. That means when your vested balance is less than $5,000, you can be forced to take your money out of the plan.
Your former employer is required to give you advance notice of this rule so you can decide what to do with the money. Your choices are to cash out your account and receive a check, or roll your account balance into an IRA or your new employer’s plan.
What happens if you fail to respond to the notice? If your vested balance is more than $1,000, your former employer must transfer the money to an IRA. For balances under $1,000, you will either get a check or your former employee will open an IRA on your behalf.
Neither outcome is optimal, according to a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. If you receive the money, you’ll owe federal income tax. When the balance is transferred to an IRA, account fees may outpace investment returns and your balance will be eroded over time.
Protecting assets you worked for and earned is always a smart move. Consult your tax professional for assistance.