Accessing Your 401(k)
If you separate from your job after reaching age 55, you can cash out your 401(k) penalty-free, even if you're not yet 59 1/2. If you're younger than 55 when you leave your job, you will have to pay taxes and a 10 percent penalty on the portion you don't roll over into an individual retirement account or another qualified employer plan. You can tap into your 401(k) penalty-free without leaving your job if you have become disabled or have a financial hardship -- for example, high medical bills, a divorce-related court order or a levy from the Internal Revenue Service. However, you can't roll over financial hardship distributions -- they are not qualified rollover distributions.
Splitting a Distribution
You can have the plan custodian transfer the rollover portion of a 401(k) distribution directly to the custodian of the new retirement account, thereby avoiding taxes and early withdrawal penalties on this portion. Alternatively, you can receive the cash and property from your 401(k) and deposit some of the proceeds tax- and penalty-free into another retirement account within 60 days of receiving the distribution. However, your 401(k) custodian will withhold 20 percent of any distribution not directly transferred to another custodian.
In addition to hardship distributions, certain other 401(k) withdrawals can't be rolled over. For example, you can't roll over distributions stemming from substantially equal periodic distributions based on your life expectancy, even though this method avoids the 10 percent early withdrawal penalty. Other rollover-restricted distributions include refunds of excess contributions, minimum required distributions that begin when your reach age 70 1/2, a loan from your 401(k) that's treated as a distribution because it doesn't satisfy certain requirements, and dividends on employer securities.
The portion of your 401(k) distribution that you roll over can be deposited into a "conduit" IRA, which is an IRA that receives only rollover money. The advantage of using a conduit IRA is that it automatically qualifies for a subsequent rollover into another employer plan. Some employer retirement plans don't accept IRA rollovers unless they come from a conduit IRA. If you make non-rollover contributions to a conduit IRA, it loses its special status and becomes a regular IRA.