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This forgotten account shouldn’t turn into a spending spree

Money Talk
A forgotten retirement account should be transferred directly into your current employer’s retirement plan, if you have one.
(Mark Wilson / Getty Images)

Dear Liz: I just got a message about thousands of dollars I have in a 401(k) account from a job I had over 10 years ago. They are asking me what I want to do with the money, roll it over into an IRA or cash it out. What should I do?

Answer: Don’t cash it out.

Unexpected money can feel like a windfall, and it’s natural to dream about potential splurges you could afford. But this cash didn’t fall out of the sky. This is money you earned and that could grow substantially if you make the right moves now. If you cashed it out, you’d lose a substantial chunk to taxes and penalties, plus you’d lose all the future tax-deferred growth that money could earn.

Your best option probably would be to transfer the money directly into your current employer’s retirement plan, if you have one and it allows such transfers. Employer plans may offer lower-cost access to investments than you’d get with an IRA, plus consolidating the old plan into the new means one less account to monitor. Also, employer plans may offer more protection from creditors, depending on where you live.

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Rolling the money directly into an IRA is another good option. You’ll need to open an account, preferably at a discount brokerage that keeps costs low. An IRA would give you access to more investment options, but beginning investors might just want to opt for a target date retirement fund or a robo-advisory service that invests using computer algorithms. With either option, the mix of investments and the risk over time would be professionally managed.

Whichever you choose, make sure the old plan sends the money directly to your chosen option, rather than sending you a check. If a check is sent to you, 20% of the money would be withheld for taxes and you’d have to come up with that amount out of your own pocket within 60 days or that portion would be considered a withdrawal that’s taxed and penalized.

How Medicare, COBRA interact

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about how Medicare coverage interacts with employer coverage. My husband will retire next year at age 65. His company has over 20 employees, so it’s considered a large company plan that won’t require him to sign up for Medicare. Is it better for him to elect family COBRA coverage for 36 months and defer Medicare coverage, since his company healthcare plan will be superior to Medicare? Can he elect Medicare coverage once COBRA terminates? Coverage matters more than costs.

Answer: He shouldn’t put off signing up for Medicare, because COBRA won’t insulate him from penalties.

The previous column mentioned that Medicare Part A, which covers hospital visits, is usually premium-free, but people generally pay premiums for Medicare Part B, which covers doctor’s visits, and Medicare Part D, which covers prescription drugs.

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Failing to sign up when you’re first eligible for Part B and Part D typically means incurring permanent penalties that can be substantial. You can avoid the penalties if you’re covered by a large employer health insurance plan — but that plan must be as a result of current employment, either yours or your spouse’s. Once your husband retires, his employment is no longer current, so he should sign up for Medicare to avoid penalties.

If you or any other dependents need coverage, he may end up paying for additional insurance through COBRA on top of what he pays for Medicare. He can have both COBRA and Medicare for himself if his Medicare benefits become effective on or before the day he elects COBRA coverage. If he starts Medicare after he signs up for COBRA, his COBRA benefits would cease but coverage for you and any dependent children could be extended for up to 36 months. Another option to consider would be to cover you and any dependents using a plan from an Affordable Care Act marketplace. You may want to discuss your options with an insurance agent before deciding.

In fact, getting expert opinions is a must, because Medicare rules and health insurance in general can be so complex. Anyone nearing 65 also would be smart to discuss their individual situations with their company’s human resources department and then confirm the information with Medicare before deciding when and how to sign up.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.


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