NEW YORK (
) -- If you think your company may go bankrupt, more than your job is at risk. Your retirement account may also be in jeopardy.
Bureaucratic snags, legal hassles, delayed deposits, frozen accounts and tumbling account balances can all mess up your retirement savings. Here's what to watch out for and what you can do to protect your nest egg if you think your company is failing.
You're Protected -- Sort of
Under the Department of Labor's ERISA laws, individual 401(k) accounts are protected from creditors. In other words, your employer can't use 401(k) funds -- your money or the money the firm may contribute in match dollars -- to pay debts.
But lawsuits surrounding the
bankruptcy call those protections into question. Employees and retirees held millions of shares of the Tribune Company in the company's 401(k) retirement plan when the company went private in a 2007 leveraged buyout. The lawsuits seek the return of payments made to shareholders in the buyout including money that was paid to 401(k) account holders.
Readers of these columns know that I fought hard against this abuse of power by the Tribune owners, predicting that this travesty would end just like
Carter Hawley Hale
, a department store chain that also coerced workers into participating in a faulty buyout back in the 1990s.
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The Tribune case is still winding its way through the legal system. Many experts believe the Tribune situation is unique and that even if creditors get their way it won't necessarily impact the protections in place for other companies.
I question that judgment given that the Labor Department, which is supposed to be scrutinizing these actions, has now twice failed to protect workers from these dangerous incursions into your nest egg.
Even so, the Tribune case is yet another cautionary tale about investing too much in your company's stock.
"That's the first thing I worry about when I hear about bankruptcies," says Rebecca Davis, legal director at The Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.
Obviously if your company is tanking, your stock holdings are going to tank with it and bring down the value of your retirement account, sometimes dramatically.
Even after the
debacle and constant warnings from investment advisers to diversify, plenty of employees still invest in company stock through their retirement plans, and plenty of employers still make 401(k) matches with company stock, says Davis.
Experts advise keeping no more than 20% of your retirement portfolio in your company's stock, no matter how highflying you think your employer is. If you're already sensing trouble, try to diversify. Thanks to the Pension Act of 2006, companies must allow employees to sell shares received in a matching contribution after three or more years of service. (Used to be some companies required that you hold the stock until retirement.) Check with your benefits department.
Make Sure Your Deposits Don't Go Missing
Companies that are in bankruptcy are at best in a disorganized state. Although they are still responsible for making regular deposits into retirement plans, it doesn't always happen on time, says Davis.
Check your quarterly statements carefully to make sure that the money taken out of your paycheck is actually making it into your account. It isn't beyond distressed companies to divert that money elsewhere to try to stay afloat.
And pay special attention to any matching dollars. Not making the contribution is common when companies are in financial straits, although in recent years many employers have simply abandoned making a matching contribution at the first sign of trouble.
In past years, bankruptcies often led to what's known as orphan plans. Employees had trouble accessing their account, sometimes for years, while the courts determined who the new plan sponsor would be. The holdups left employees powerless to reallocate in the face of market losses. What's more, participants often had to take on extra fees.
New Labor Department regulations have helped prevent more orphan plans but many are still out there. What's more, bankruptcies can still cause 401(k) bureaucratic delays, albeit not as egregious as before.
If you think your retirement deposits are not getting transferred in a timely manner, you're facing other delays or glitches or you simply have questions about the status of your 401(k) plan, get help from the Web site for the Pension Counseling and Information program sponsored by the Administration on Aging:
Don't Go Down With the Ship
If you change jobs or get laid off from a troubled company, immediately roll over your 401(k) into an IRA. That way you'll have control of your asset allocation and investments and avoid any bureaucratic hang-ups.