Liz Weston: 401(k) administrator’s bad advice could cost you money
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Liz Weston: 401(k) administrator’s bad advice could cost you money

Dear Liz: I recently switched jobs and realized that I have multiple 401(k) accounts from prior employers over the years that need to be consolidated.

When I reached out to my current employer’s 401(k) administrator to understand the rollover process, they said I would actually need to have a paper check mailed to me for each prior employer and then arrange to mail the checks to them. Liz, we are talking about four checks totaling a very substantial amount of money! They said there is “no other way” to process the rollovers. I cannot understand why we are still dealing with such an archaic process in this day and age.

Should I be worried or should I just go ahead and take care of this now since I don’t seem to have much say in the process?

Answer: You should definitely be worried, and you also shouldn’t assume that your employer’s 401(k) administrator understands the options at other companies. Getting a check in the mail from an old plan is not only unsafe but triggers a 20% withholding requirement.

If you want to avoid taxes and penalties on the missing 20%, you’d have to come up with that money out of your own pocket. (If you didn’t deposit the check with the new plan or in an IRA, you’d owe taxes and potentially penalties on all of the money.)

When you contact the old plan’s administrators, ask if they can do a “direct rollover” to your new 401(k) account. Often, the transfer can be made electronically.

Even if the old plan uses a paper check and the U.S. mail to deliver the funds, you can avoid the 20% withholding requirement if the check is made out to your new account rather than to you.

Dear Liz: Can I purchase a U.S. Treasury bill myself or do I need to go through a bank or a financial advisor?

Answer: You can buy government-issued securities — including Treasury bills, bonds and notes —from TreasuryDirect, which is operated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Setting up an account usually takes just a few minutes, but you’ll need a valid Social Security number, a U.S. address and a checking or savings account to complete the process.

You also can buy Treasuries in a brokerage account. You can purchase a Treasury bill on what’s known as the secondary market, where securities are bought and sold, or you can invest in a Treasury money market mutual fund or a Treasury exchange-traded fund.

Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at

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