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401(a) Plan Rollover Options and Rollover Rules

Navigating the world of retirement savings can often feel like traversing a labyrinth, particularly when it comes to understanding the various types of retirement plans and the rules that govern them. 

One such plan, often overlooked but increasingly common, especially among public sector employees, is the 401(a) plan. Offering flexibility and significant savings potential, a 401(a) can be a powerful tool for individuals planning their retirement journey. 

To fully leverage the benefits and avoid potential pitfalls, one needs to grasp its intricacies, especially when considering a rollover. 

In this article, we take a look into the essentials of the 401(a) plan, focusing particularly on the concept of rollovers. 

We’ll explore what a rollover is, why you might consider one, and the different options available to you. We’ll discuss the tax implications of a rollover, walk through the rollover process, discuss potential pitfalls, and compare 401(a) rollovers with other retirement plans. 

Introduction to 401(a) Plans

A 401(a) plan is a type of retirement savings plan primarily designed for employees of government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations. This employer-sponsored plan gets its name from Section 401(a) of the Internal Revenue Code, which outlines the legal guidelines for this type of investment vehicle.

One of the main features of the 401(a) plan is that it is funded through contributions that can be made by both the employer and the employee. These contributions are usually set by the terms of the plan and may either be mandatory or voluntary. 

An appealing characteristic of 401(a) plans is their tax advantage. Contributions are made on a pre-tax basis, meaning that they reduce the participant’s taxable income for the year. Moreover, the funds invested in the plan, including earnings from investments, are not taxed until they are distributed during retirement, allowing for tax-deferred growth.

401(a) plans are often customizable according to the employer’s specific needs and goals. This means that the employer can set eligibility requirements, vesting schedules, and contribution limits that are different from other types of retirement accounts. While this flexibility can be a benefit, it also means that 401(a) plans can vary widely from one employer to another.

401(a) plans often offer a selection of investment options. Participants can typically choose from a range of mutual funds, stocks, bonds, and other investment vehicles, depending on what their specific plan offers. 

Like 401(k) plans, 401(a) plans typically have a penalty for withdrawals before the age of 59.5 unless certain conditions are met.

401(a) plans serve as an attractive retirement savings vehicle for employees of government agencies, educational institutions, and non-profit organizations, offering the opportunity for tax-advantaged savings and a degree of customization to suit specific employer needs. 

401(a) Rollover Basics

A rollover is a process that allows individuals to move their retirement savings from one qualified retirement plan to another without incurring immediate tax liabilities or penalties. 

This process becomes particularly useful when an individual changes jobs, retires or simply wants to consolidate multiple retirement accounts for easier management. 

When we talk about 401(a) rollovers, we’re referring to the process of moving assets from a 401(a) plan to another qualified retirement plan. 

The purpose of this movement could be for various reasons, such as the end of employment with the organization offering the 401(a), the desire for more investment options, or the need to consolidate different retirement accounts into one.

There are two main types of rollovers: Direct and Indirect

Direct Rollover

A direct rollover, also known as a trustee-to-trustee transfer, is when the assets from the 401(a) plan are sent directly to the new retirement plan or IRA. 

In this case, the funds are not payable to you; instead, the administrator of the 401(a) plan transfers the funds directly to the administrator of the new plan. 

This is typically the preferred method of rollover as it does not trigger any tax withholding or penalties.

Indirect Rollover

An indirect rollover occurs when the funds from the 401(a) plan are distributed to you, and you have 60 days to deposit the money into another qualified retirement plan or IRA. 

This method can be trickier because the plan administrator is required to withhold 20% for federal income tax. 

To avoid taxes and penalties, you must deposit the full amount of the distribution, including the 20% withheld, into the new retirement account within 60 days.

Rollovers offer a great deal of flexibility for managing retirement assets. However, not all retirement plans accept rollovers. For example, some 401(k) plans may not accept incoming rollovers from a 401(a) plan. 

In summary, 401(a) rollovers, when done correctly, allow the transfer of retirement assets from one tax-advantaged account to another, facilitating seamless transitions between employers, offering more control over investment options, and making account management easier.

Reasons to Consider a Rollover

There are several reasons why someone might want to consider rolling over their 401(a) plan:

1. Job Changes

One of the most common reasons for a rollover is a job change. When an individual leaves an organization, they have the option to roll over their 401(a) plan to another qualified retirement plan or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). 

Leaving the plan with the old employer might not be the best choice as they might lose access to plan benefits or find it challenging to manage their retirement savings.

2. Better Investment Options

Not all retirement plans are created equal, especially when it comes to investment options. Some plans offer a wide variety of choices, while others are more limited. 

If an individual feels that their 401(a) plan lacks the diversity they desire, they may choose to roll the funds over to an IRA or another employer’s plan that offers a broader range of investment choices.

3. Consolidation of Retirement Assets

Over the course of a career, an individual may accumulate multiple retirement accounts, making it challenging to keep track of investments and overall retirement savings strategy. 

Rollovers allow individuals to consolidate these multiple accounts into one, simplifying account management and ensuring a more streamlined approach to retirement planning.

4. Estate Planning Reasons

Rollovers can be an integral part of estate planning. Depending on the type of account you roll your 401(a) into, it can affect the options available to your heirs. 

For example, traditional and Roth IRAs have different rules for required minimum distributions and tax implications for heirs. Thus, a rollover could be a strategic move for those thinking ahead to estate planning.

5. Lower Fees

Fees can eat into your retirement savings over time. If your 401(a) plan has high administrative fees or expensive investment options, it might make financial sense to roll the money into an IRA or a new employer’s plan with lower fees.

6. Access to Funds

While 401(a) plans generally penalize withdrawals before the age of 59.5, some retirement plans, like a 457 plan, allow penalty-free withdrawals if the account holder leaves the job associated with the plan, regardless of their age at that time. 

Rolling over a 401(a) to such a plan could provide earlier access to funds if needed.

Rollover Options

When considering a 401(a) rollover, there are several options available. These include:

1. Rolling Over to a New Employer’s Plan

If your new job offers a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k), 403(b), or another 401(a), you may be able to roll over your existing 401(a) plan. 

The primary advantage of this option is the ability to keep all of your retirement savings in one place, which can simplify management. 

On the downside, your investment options might be limited to those chosen by your employer, and the plan may have higher fees than an IRA. Additionally, not all employer plans accept rollovers, so you’d need to check with the plan administrator.

2. Rolling Over to a 403(b) Plan

Similar to 401(a) plans, 403(b) plans are also commonly offered by public education institutions, non-profit organizations, and certain churches. 

The 403(b) plan can be a good option if you’re transitioning to a job in one of these organizations. 

The main benefit of rolling over into a 403(b) is that these plans often offer similar investment choices to 401(a) plans, along with tax-deferred growth of your savings. Early withdrawals are usually subject to penalties.

3. Rolling Over to a 457 Plan

These plans are usually provided by state and local governments and some non-profit organizations. 

An attractive feature of 457 plans is that, unlike 401(a) and 403(b) plans, they do not impose a 10% penalty for withdrawals before the age of 59.5. This could be beneficial if you foresee needing to access your retirement funds early. 

On the downside, 457 plans can be more limited in their investment options compared to an IRA.

4. Rolling Over to an IRA (Traditional or Roth)

This is a very popular option due to the great flexibility and broad range of investment options that IRAs offer. 

With an IRA, you’re not limited to the choices selected by an employer, and you might have access to lower-cost investments. 

Rolling over to a Roth IRA (which offers tax-free distributions in retirement) would require you to pay taxes on the rollover amount in the year of the conversion, as Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars.

5. Cash Out

Although this is technically an option, it is usually not recommended unless in cases of financial emergencies. Cashing out before you reach the age of 59.5 typically incurs not only income taxes on the entire distribution but also a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

In all cases, it’s important to check with the administrator of the plan you want to roll into to ensure that it accepts rollovers. Some plans have restrictions on rollovers, and there may be specific procedural requirements to follow. 

Tax Implications of 401(a) Rollovers

The tax implications of 401(a) rollovers are an important consideration. If handled correctly, a rollover can help avoid early withdrawal penalties and preserve the tax-advantaged growth of your retirement savings. 

Avoiding Early Withdrawal Penalties

If you withdraw funds from your 401(a) plan before the age of 59.5, you will typically have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty in addition to regular income tax on the amount withdrawn. 

If you roll over your 401(a) plan to another eligible retirement plan or an IRA, you can avoid this penalty. 

Preserving Tax-Deferred Growth

One of the significant advantages of retirement accounts like the 401(a) is the ability for your investments to grow on a tax-deferred basis. 

This means that you don’t pay taxes on the investment earnings until you withdraw them in retirement. By rolling over your 401(a) to another retirement account, you preserve this tax-deferred status, allowing your savings to potentially grow more significantly over time.

Now, let’s review the two main types of rollovers and their tax implications:

Direct Rollover Tax Implications

A direct rollover, also known as a trustee-to-trustee transfer, involves the funds being directly transferred from the 401(a) plan to the new retirement plan or IRA. The funds are never payable to you, so there are no immediate tax consequences. 

This is the most straightforward and tax-efficient way to perform a rollover. It helps avoid any tax withholding or potential penalties, maintaining the full value of your retirement savings.

Indirect Rollover Tax Implications

In an indirect rollover, the funds from the 401(a) plan are distributed to you, and you then have 60 days to deposit the money into another qualified retirement plan or IRA. 

When the distribution is made, the plan administrator is required to withhold 20% for federal income tax. 

To avoid paying taxes and the early withdrawal penalty, you must deposit the full distribution amount, including the amount withheld for taxes, into the new retirement account within the 60-day timeframe. 

If you fail to do so, the IRS treats it as a taxable distribution, and you may also owe the 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are under the age of 59.5.

401(a) Rollover Process

The process for conducting a 401(a) rollover involves several steps, each important for ensuring a smooth transition of funds while avoiding unnecessary taxes or penalties. Here is a step-by-step guide to assist you:

Step 1: Plan Your Rollover

Before initiating a rollover, decide where you want to move your funds. It could be a new employer’s retirement plan or an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). 

Each has its own set of advantages, disadvantages, fees, and investment options, which should be carefully considered.

Step 2: Check with Both Plan Administrators

Once you’ve decided where to move your funds, contact both the current 401(a) plan administrator and the receiving plan administrator. 

Verify that the receiving plan accepts rollovers and get detailed instructions about their rollover process. 

The administrators can guide you on any forms that need to be filled out and specific procedural requirements.

Step 3: Decide on the Type of Rollover

You will need to choose between a direct rollover (trustee-to-trustee transfer) and an indirect rollover. 

A direct rollover is generally easier and avoids any immediate tax liabilities, as the funds move directly from your current plan to the new one. 

An indirect rollover gives you 60 days to deposit the distributed funds into the new plan but comes with mandatory 20% withholding for federal taxes.

Step 4: Complete Any Necessary Paperwork

Fill out all necessary forms provided by your plan administrators. 

The paperwork will vary depending on the plan administrators and the type of rollover chosen, but you’ll typically need to provide details about your current plan and where you want the funds transferred. 

Step 5: Initiate the Rollover

After you’ve filled out the necessary forms, submit them to initiate the rollover. 

In case of a direct rollover, the funds should be transferred from your 401(a) plan to the new plan without you seeing the money. 

For an indirect rollover, the funds will be paid to you minus the 20% federal tax withholding, and you must deposit the full amount into the new plan within 60 days.

Step 6: Confirm the Transfer

Once you’ve initiated the rollover, monitor your accounts. You should receive confirmation from the new plan that the rollover has been completed, and the funds should show up in your new account. 

This process can take a few weeks. If you don’t see the funds in your new account within a reasonable timeframe, follow up with both plan administrators.

Step 7: Report the Rollover on Your Taxes

Lastly, you’ll need to report the rollover on your tax return. 

For a direct rollover, this is usually just a matter of reporting that the funds were rolled over, not that you owe taxes on the amount. 

If you’ve completed an indirect rollover, the process is a bit more complex due to the tax withholding and potential additional tax liability if the full amount was not deposited into the new account within 60 days.

Potential Pitfalls

While a 401(a) rollover can be an excellent way to manage your retirement savings, it’s essential to be aware of potential pitfalls. Here are some challenges that you might encounter during the rollover process:

Specific Plan Rules

Not all retirement plans are the same, and some may have specific rules regarding rollovers. For instance, some plans may not accept incoming rollovers, while others may only accept certain types. 

Before initiating a rollover, always check with both your current plan administrator and the administrator of the plan you want to roll your funds into to understand any restrictions or requirements.

Timing Constraints

In the case of an indirect rollover, you have only 60 days to deposit the distribution into a new retirement account. 

If you miss this deadline, the IRS will consider the amount as a taxable distribution, and you may also be liable for a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you are under 59.5 years old. 

Make sure to start the rollover process early enough to accommodate any unexpected delays.

Tax Implications

Rollovers, if not done correctly, can lead to unexpected tax liabilities. With an indirect rollover, if you fail to redeposit the full amount distributed, including the 20% withheld for taxes, into the new retirement account within the 60-day period, the shortfall will be considered taxable income. 

If you’re rolling over to a Roth account from a 401(a), you’ll have to pay taxes on pre-tax contributions and earnings.

One-Per-Year Rule

For IRAs, the IRS allows only one indirect rollover in a 12-month period. This rule applies across all your IRAs, not per IRA account. This does not apply to direct rollovers or trustee-to-trustee transfers.

Mixing Pre-Tax and After-Tax Contributions

If your 401(a) includes both pre-tax and after-tax contributions, be aware that these amounts are treated differently in a rollover. It’s necessary to keep track of these amounts, as they can have different tax implications if they are mixed in a rollover.

Losing Loan Privileges

Some 401(a) plans allow loans, but IRAs do not. If you have an outstanding loan in your 401(a) plan and initiate a rollover, the outstanding loan balance could be considered a distribution and thus be subject to taxes and penalties.

Forgetting About Fees

While not a pitfall per se, it’s worth noting that different retirement accounts have different fee structures. Always understand the costs involved in your new account.

Comparisons with Other Retirement Plans

401(a) plans share many similarities with other retirement plans like 401(k), 403(b), and 457 plans, especially when it comes to rollovers. However, there are also key differences that can affect the process and your decision-making. 

Here’s how 401(a) rollovers compare to rollovers involving other retirement accounts:

401(a) vs. 401(k) Rollovers

401(a) and 401(k) plans are quite similar, and both can be rolled over directly into another similar plan, a different type of plan, or an IRA without tax penalties, assuming the receiving plan accepts rollovers. 

401(k) plans are primarily offered by private-sector employers, while 401(a) plans are typically offered by public and non-profit employers. This difference in sponsorship can impact the available investment options and plan rules. 

401(a) vs. 403(b) Rollovers

Both 401(a) and 403(b) plans are commonly used by public-sector and non-profit employers. 

Their rollover rules are also similar: funds can be rolled over directly to a like plan, another type of plan, or an IRA. 

401(a) vs. 457 Rollovers

The primary difference between 401(a) and 457 plans comes down to early withdrawal penalties. 

With 401(a) plans, like most other retirement plans, there is usually a 10% penalty for withdrawals made before age 59.5. 

457 plans do not have this early withdrawal penalty, making them somewhat unique. 

If you’re considering rolling over your 401(a) into a 457 plan and think you might need to access the funds before age 59.5, this could be an advantage. 

Unique Aspects of 401(a) Rollovers

401(a) plans stand out due to the flexibility they offer in terms of contribution structures. They can be designed with either mandatory or voluntary contributions, and these contributions can be either pre-tax or after-tax. 

This flexibility allows for a wide variety of plan designs tailored to the specific needs of the employees. That also means 401(a) participants need to be aware of what type of contributions they have when considering a rollover, as pre-tax and after-tax amounts are handled differently for tax purposes.

Case Studies and Examples

Case studies and examples can provide a better understanding of how 401(a) rollovers work and the considerations involved. Let’s look at a few scenarios:

Case Study – Direct Rollover to an IRA

Let’s consider Jane, a 45-year-old university professor who has accumulated a substantial balance in her 401(a) plan. When Jane decides to move to a private sector job, she elects to roll over her 401(a) funds directly into an IRA. 

This gives her a broader range of investment options and allows her to consolidate her retirement savings. As she completed a direct rollover, the funds moved directly from her 401(a) to the IRA, and she avoided any immediate tax consequences.

Case Study – Rollover After Retirement

John, a 60-year-old city administrator, decides to retire after 30 years of service. He has a sizeable balance in his 401(a) account, and he decides to roll it over into a 403(b) account offered by a non-profit organization where he plans to volunteer part-time. 

This rollover allows him to continue tax-deferred growth of his retirement savings and take advantage of the specific features of the 403(b) plan.

Case Study – Indirect Rollover

Emily, a 50-year-old hospital administrator, is transitioning to a role at a non-profit organization. She decides to do an indirect rollover of her 401(a) funds to her new employer’s 403(b) plan. 

Her current plan distributes the funds to her, withholding 20% for federal taxes. Emily deposits the entire distribution, including the amount equivalent to the tax withholding, into her new 403(b) plan within the 60-day window. 

This way, she avoids any tax liabilities or penalties, and when she files her taxes, she can claim a refund for the amount withheld.

Case Study – Pitfalls and Penalties

Robert, a 55-year-old school principal, decides to roll over his 401(a) to an IRA. However, he opts for an indirect rollover and, due to a misunderstanding, fails to deposit the funds into the IRA within the 60-day timeframe. 

As a result, the entire distribution becomes subject to regular income tax, and because Robert is under 59.5, he also incurs a 10% early withdrawal penalty. 

These case studies are meant to illustrate the different aspects and potential complexities of 401(a) rollovers. They highlight the importance of understanding the rollover process, your options, and the implications of each choice you make. 


Rolling over a 401(a) plan is an important decision in the course of managing your retirement savings. 

We’ve explored the basics of 401(a) plans, the rationale behind considering a rollover, the different rollover options available, and the tax implications that come with each choice. We’ve also looked at the step-by-step process of initiating a rollover, potential pitfalls that may arise, and the distinctive aspects of 401(a) rollovers compared to other retirement plans.

As illustrated by our case studies, each rollover scenario can be quite unique, reflecting the individual’s specific circumstances, retirement goals, and the characteristics of the plans involved. 

A rollover can present an opportunity to better align your retirement savings with your future objectives, but it’s not a decision to be made lightly. Careful consideration of all aspects involved, including the potential for unforeseen tax liabilities and penalties, is important.

A financial advisor can provide personalized guidance, help avoid costly errors, and assist in navigating the often complex landscape of retirement plan rules and regulations. While there is some cost involved, the peace of mind and potential savings from avoiding missteps often make it a wise investment.