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How to Protect Your Retirement Benefits If You Lose Your Job

Posted Jul 20 2012 1:58pm

By Phyllis C. Borzi, Assistant Secretary, Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration

Business closings, downsizings and reductions in hours may lead you to wonder what happens to your retirement benefits if you lose your job? Saving for retirement through an employer’s plan is an important part of your future financial security. The good news is you have protections under Federal law.

The Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) provides rules for those responsible for the management and oversight of your retirement plan. It also provides you with some rights and protections, including the right to receive information about your retirement plan.

When you leave your job, make sure you have a copy of your plan’s current summary plan description (SPD) and your individual benefit statement. If you don’t, request a copy.

The SPD tells you if and when you can collect your benefits or how to roll over your 401(k) account to a new employer’s plan or to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Your individual benefit statement lets you monitor your account balance or benefit.

If your retirement savings remain in your former employer’s plan, your retirement funds generally should not be at risk even if a business closes. Employers must comply with Federal laws when establishing and running retirement plans, and the consequences of not prudently managing plan assets are serious.

Keep current on any changes the company makes, including changes of address, employer name, or mergers and give the plan any changes to your contact information.

If your benefits are in a traditional pension plan and your plan ends without enough money to pay the promised benefits, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will pay benefits up to a maximum guaranteed amount set by law.

If you want to access your retirement money, review your SPD and individual benefit statement. Generally, if you are in a 401(k)–type defined contribution plan, your plan may provide for a lump sum distribution or a rollover of your retirement money to a new employer’s plan or an IRA when you leave the company.

If you are in a defined benefit pension plan, your benefits begin at retirement age and are less likely to be available earlier. Contact your plan administrator if you have questions about accessing your benefits.

Keep in mind unless you rollover your funds into another retirement account you may have to pay income taxes and a penalty for early withdrawal. Also check with your state unemployment office to see if it will impact your ability to receive unemployment compensation. Withdrawing retirement savings early means you will have less money for retirement.

The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) administers ERISA. EBSA has a number of publications about retirement benefit plans and the protections noted above available at www.dol.gov/ebsa . If you have questions about your retirement plan, contact EBSA at www.askebsa.dol.gov or call 1-866-444-3272.

To learn about other free resources to help you no matter what your financial situation, sign up for our e-mail list or visit our page .

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