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Some 401(k) Plans Offer a Hidden Escape Hatch

More than one person has said to me, "Why do I have to be locked into this lousy 401(k) plan? The investment choices are terrible!" Check the fine print of your 401(k) plan. There might be a way out.

If there is, you will find it in the "Summary Plan Description," a document you should get at sign-up time, that describes what your plan is all about and how it works. The wording you're looking for is "in-service, nonhardship withdrawals." In other words, you still work for the company, but you want to take some money out, and not because of hardship.

Among your reasons for wanting out may be the desire for more control over your retirement money, more diversification in your retirement portfolio, the ability to choose from a broader universe of investments or the desire to own less of your company's stock.

Please note, we're not talking here about a distribution or withdrawal from the plan, even though the wording says "withdrawal." We're talking about a direct rollover from the 401(k) into another retirement plan, such as an IRA. These rollovers usually occur only if you leave your job and want to take your 401(k) assets with you. But "in-service" withdrawals don't require you to quit your job.

The ability to make this kind of rollover is neither required nor prevented by the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Labor. But you probably won't find it in more recent 401(k) plans. Plans that allow it are typically offered by older and larger companies that are able to offer customized, more feature-laden 401(k) plans to their employees.

Among companies that offer in-service, nonhardship withdrawals are:

  • Lucent Technologies
  • AT&T
  • Verizon Communications
  • Sears
  • Caterpillar
  • Tiffany
  • General Motors

Though there is significant employee interest in these rollovers, most companies that offer them don't advertise the option because they don't really want to encourage it. It's intended only as an escape hatch.

The terms of the withdrawals vary widely. For example, a company may allow employees to withdraw only their own contributions and not any company matching contributions. And typically, any plan that allows after-tax contributions to a 401(k) won't allow them to be withdrawn.

The company also may set limits on the amounts that may be withdrawn or the number of withdrawals that may be made in a given period. And if an employee's withdrawals exceed a set limit -- two or three a year is common -- the company may require that the employee be suspended for a period of time from making any more plan contributions or withdrawals.

Remember, these withdrawals aren't cash that you can spend as you like. The money is either transferred directly to your IRA or given to you as a check made out to your IRA custodian. Once the funds are in your IRA, they are subject to all the rules that normally govern IRA assets.

The main point of this discussion is simply to make you aware of the possibility that you may be able to exert more control over your 401(k) assets by rolling them over into an IRA. If you don't have to work with an overly restricted 401(k) plan, it might be easier for you to reach your long-term retirement objectives.

Vern Hayden is a certified financial planner in Westport, Conn. He is a financial consultant and advisory associate of Financial Network Investment Corp. He also is an owner of Hayden Financial Group. His column is not a recommendation to buy or sell stocks or to solicit transactions or clients. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks or funds. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, Hayden welcomes your feedback at Hayden4t9@aol.com.

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