CASHING OUT 401K: How It Works & What to Consider

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The 401(k) plan is a company-sponsored retirement savings plan. Every month, a portion of your monthly salary is set aside and put into your 401(k) plan, or whatever retirement savings package you get. This money can then be withdrawn from the account when you reach the point in your career where you are ready to retire. There is still the possibility that a time will come when you will be in such desperate need of some money that you will have no choice but to withdraw money from your 401(k) plan. Many people do this without realizing the ramifications. This article focuses on the basics and eligibility of cashing out a 401K after retirement or leaving a job, as well as the penalties attached to cashing out your 401k early.


A 401k allows you to start saving early in your job to ensure that you have enough money to retire comfortably. As long as you have decided that you want to save money for retirement, a 401(k) plan allows you to deposit a portion of your salary into a tax-free investment account. 401k is one of the most popular retirement plan options available to workers in the United States. It’s even better when your employer frequently matches the amount of money that is set aside up to a specific amount, basically assuring that you will receive income at no cost.

If If you need access to the money, it’s not uncommon to wonder how to withdraw money from your 401(k). This, in most cases, happens especially in the wake of a significant or unexpected expense. This is especially the case in the event that the expense in question was considerable.

Cashing Out 401K – Knowing How it Works

The first thing you need to do to cash out your 401(k) account is to put a call through to the number you have on the statement for your 401(k) plan and ask the customer service representative to send you the necessary documentation you might require for cashing out your account. The majority of the time, you will need to fill out documentation by hand. However, in certain circumstances, you might be able to complete it online or over the phone.

As a rule, you will need the signature of the human resources (HR) staff member or plan administrator of the company you previously worked with. If you worked for a company that was not very large, you might have to bring these documents to them in person. Other times, you may have to make initial contact with them personally in order to get this done. If you happen to be working for a large company, the financial firm that provided the 401(k) plan with its various investment options is most likely to be responsible for this. 

Eligibility for Cashing a 401(k) Plan

Basically, you will not be able to withdraw money from your 401(k) plan if you are still employed by the firm that is contributing to your 401(k). This is due to the fact that this will violate the terms of your employment agreement with your employer. There are only three exemptions in which you can possibly break this rule;

  • A 401(k) loan
  • An in-service withdrawal
  • Or a hardship withdrawal 

401(k) Loan Option

Generally, taking out a loan against your 401(k) is something that, if at all possible, you should try to steer clear of doing. This is because, for the money you have sitting in your 401(k) to grow, you need to give it as much time as you possibly can. It is also a requirement, it is mandatory that you repay the loan. You will not only be paying the loan with just the principal but also with interest. You will be running the risk of losing money in the long run.

No Longer Employed

If you are no longer employed by the companies that are contributing to your 401(k) plan, then you are free to request the funds that are owed to you from those companies. You have the option of cashing out the 401k funds in cash or rolling them over into an individual retirement account (IRA).

However, if you decide to roll over your funds rather than take cash out of your account, you will not be subject to any penalties or taxes on your income. If you do this in a proper way, rollovers do not constitute taxable transactions for the taxpayer. The Internal Revenue Service will not consider it cash out if you transfer your 401(k) plan assets to another qualified retirement plan.

Hardship Withdrawal Option

In the event of an emergency, you may use the hardship withdrawal option to get money out of your account without incurring any penalties. When you’re facing a financial emergency, such as having to pay for unexpected medical expenses or tuition, or when you need money for a down payment on your first home, it makes sense to take advantage of these hardship withdrawals. Having said that, even though you’re not incurring any penalties with this option, you’ll still be responsible for paying income tax.

However, you can only make withdrawals for hardship purposes from an elective deferral account. Even for this to be possible, you will have to satisfy all of the following conditions:

  • You’re facing significant and pressing financial challenges and require funds.
  • You restrict the withdrawal to only the minimum amount you need to solve the financial problem.
  • You provide evidence to back up your claim.

If you are found to be eligible, you will be required to submit the documentation that was requested of you. Both your employer and the reason you are withdrawing your funds in the first place will play a role in determining which documentation you need to provide.

Once you have submitted all of the paperwork, you will receive a check for the amount with the expectation that you won’t have to pay a penalty.

If you quit your place of employment or try to make the withdrawal in the calendar year after the year in which you turn 55, there is a possibility that you will not be subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty. If you want to avoid paying that penalty altogether, there are various ways to do so; in that case, you should take your time and conduct some research.

Substantially Equal Period Payments

It’s also possible to avoid the penalty cost by taking advantage of “substantially equal periodic payments” (72(t) SEPPs) when you need to cash out some money from your 401(k). Normally, if you are still employed by the company that sponsors your 401(k) plan, you cannot make these withdrawals. However, if you get the cash out through an IRA, you can do so and do it whenever you choose.

And if you are in need of money in the near future, the SEPP is probably not the best option for you to pursue. This is because once you begin making payments for this form of withdrawal, you should prepare yourself to continue doing so for at least five years or until you reach the age of 59 and a half, whichever comes first before you can stop.

If you fail to make these payments, the penalty for early withdrawal will be applied. Plus, you will also have to pay interest on the deferred penalties accruing over the course of the previous couple of tax years.

This rule has two exceptions; 

  • To begin with, beneficiaries may take withdrawals if the taxpayer passes away, which is a rare but important exception.
  • The second possible scenario is one in which the taxpayer experiences a disability that is irreversible.

The IRS has approved the methodologies for calculating both the withdrawals and the payments. You could get a mandated minimum payout, a fixed annuitization payment, or a fixed amortization payment. Since each will enable you to withdraw a different amount, you can pick the one that best suits your requirements.

Penalties For Cashing Out 401K

It is understood that there are penalties attached to cashing out your 401k plan before reaching retirement age. But having knowledge of all this information in advance can help you save a significant amount of hassle. Whatever the case may be, there are still some exemptions that you might employ to stay clear of any penalties that come with cashing out 401k.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) establishes the guidelines for retirement savings in general. There are restrictions regarding the amount of income that you can defer from taxes and the amount you can deposit into various retirement accounts on an annual basis. There are also restrictions regarding the types of accounts that can receive pre-tax dollars and the types of accounts that can receive after-tax dollars, as well as restrictions regarding when you can withdraw the money.

#1. A 10% fee will be added to your account as a penalty

The Internal Revenue Service will assess a penalty of 10% on any withdrawal of any money before the account holder reaches the age of 59½. This penalty will be deducted from that particular amount that you withdraw from your 401(k) straightaway.

Suppose you withdrew $10,000 from the 401(k) plan sponsored by your company. You contact your company’s HR department or the administrator of your plan, and then you proceed to execute all of the required actions. When the money finally gets to you, you won’t have more than $9,000 in your possession.

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) takes the decision to impose penalties so that account holders will ponder and hesitate before cashing money out of their 401k retirement savings too early.

#2. You Will Have a Sizeable Tax Bill to Face.

You will owe taxes on the amount that you take from your 401(k), in addition to the penalty of 10% of the total amount.

It is the obligation of the administrator of your retirement plan to withhold 20% of each withdrawal you make to pay applicable taxes. On the other hand, based on the tax category you fall into, this could not be enough to cover your total tax liability.

If this happens and you can’t come up with the remaining amount when you submit your taxes, there is a high probability that you will be forced to choose a payment method that is more expensive than the others available.

#3. You May Have Less For Retirement

Time and regular contributions are, without a doubt, the two most important factors in ensuring a financially secure retirement. However, if you take money out of your 401(k) before it has had a chance to accumulate compounding interest, you are basically reducing its potential for future growth.

Even in a situation where you plan on putting the money back in later, it won’t still be able to grow. At least not until you actually put it back in your account.

Likewise, if you took money out of your 401(k) when the market was down, you might miss out on growth when the market went up again.

There are always opportunity costs involved when it comes to one’s financial situation. When you withdraw money from your 401(k) before the prescribed time, you may end up paying substantially more in taxes and fees than you anticipated.

How Can I Stay Clear of the Penalties Associated with Cashing Out My 401(k)?

There are always ups and downs in life, as well as difficult moments. The Internal Revenue Service is aware of this too. As such, they establish a number of exemptions that exempt people from the penalties of cashing out their 401k early. In most circumstances, however, you will still need to pay tax on the money you withdraw from your account. But, in what ways can you avoid paying penalties for cashing out 401k;

  • Avoid incurring the penalty of 10%.
  • Get a Hardship Withdrawal if you qualify.
  • Move money to an IRA
  • Consider a 401(k) loan instead of cashing your 401(k) instead.
  • Take out the bare minimum of what you require.

Cashing Out 401K After Leaving Job

The company you worked for before may let you keep your 401(k) account with them if there is enough money in it. However, this decision will depend on how much money is currently in the account. On the other hand, you will no longer be able to make any more contributions to your old account.

This may not be the most logical course of action, though, especially now that you have access to Individual Retirement Account (IRA) plans that are more flexible.

You have the option of rolling over your 401(k) to your new job or transferring the funds into an individual retirement account (IRA). And if you are of the required age, you will not need to pay any penalties for cashing out of your 401k early.

When are You Cashing Out Your 401k After leaving Your Job?

In regards to your previous 401k account with your old employer, you should take note of the guidelines that are outlined below regarding cashing out your 401k after leaving your job.

  • Even if you leave the company, your former employer might let you keep the money in your 401(k). This, of course, is provided you meet certain account criteria of having a total investment of more than $5,000.
  • Supposing your bank account has a balance of less than $1,000, your employer has the right to fire you and send you a check for the remaining balance in your account.
  • If the entire value of your investments in your former 401(k) is between $1,000 and $5,000, and if your employer wants to push you out of the plan, they will have to transfer the money to your individual retirement account (IRA).

What are the Options for Cashing Out a 401k After Leaving a Job?

Certainly, any money in your 401(k) account belongs to you. This could include your contribution, the contribution from your company, as well as any gains on your investments. This money can serve the purpose of augmenting the funds you have set aside for your retirement.

At some point, you might start feeling tempted to cash out the money in your 401(k) plan. Maybe because of the large amount that has accrued in the account. If this is the case, it would be to your best advantage to refrain from doing so.

Also, you might possibly forget about your 401k account after some time if you decide to leave it with your previous employer. As such, it is not always the smartest move. You can either roll over to your newest employer or set up an IRA to transfer 401(k) funds into. You have both of these options available to you.

When you transfer your 401(k) to an IRA, you gain the freedom to invest your money as you see fit. Nevertheless, it might not be so in jurisdictions like California, where creditors have easier access to IRA funds than they do to 401(k) funds. This is not always the case, though. If you believe you may be the target of a lawsuit or other legal action, you may wish to keep your money in a 401(k) rather than an IRA.

Furthermore, if your new employer’s 401(k) plan allows it, you can transfer your funds from your previous account to your new one. Regardless of where you choose to invest, it is always a good idea to diversify your portfolio. Even if you have a lot of faith in an employer, you may still not want to put a lot of your savings into it.


For your financial security in old age, it’s important to follow the regulations governing your 401(k) retirement assets. Premature withdrawals can reduce the amount of money you have to live on in retirement.

Making an early withdrawal is normally possible. But even then, you should consider the effects/penalties and think twice before cashing the money out of your 401k. Cashing out the money is simple, but you should be aware of the financial ramifications.

Cashing Out 401k FAQs

How does job loss work with 401k withdrawal?

If you lose your job before 59 ½ years, you can cash out your 401(k). For 401(k) distribution, contact your plan administrator and completely fill out the forms. The IRS may assess a 10% early withdrawal penalty, though, with some exceptions.

Why is it not a good idea to cash out your 401k after leaving job?

Cashing out your 401k after leaving a job could seem like a smart idea, but in actuality, doing so could endanger your future.

What is the possibility of cashing out 401k if I quit job?

Cashing out your 401k when leaving your job is possible. This decision, however, may incur a 10% early withdrawal penalty, while you must also pay taxes rates in full.

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