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Greetings, ThatDanGuy, and welcome to Fooldom.

<<I'm hoping to leave the working world next year and pursue a Ph.D. (Foolish enough for you?) But, I have a modest-yet-significant amount of $ in my 401(k)
plan. I'm fairly sure the universities to which I'm applying will not have rollover options for the likes of me, though I'm not sure.

Assuming there are no such beasts & I'm allowed the chance to enjoy indentured servitude, what are my options? Is there a way to avoid the 10% penalty for
early withdrawal?>>

Assuming you're under the age of 59 1/2 (in some cases 55 depending on the working of the plan document) AND assuming you're really asking if you can keep the cash WITHOUT paying the 10% on top of ordinary taxes, the answer is "No, you may not avoid the 10% penalty."

Basically, you have the following options to escape the 10% penalty when you leave your job:

a. Leave the money in the 401k at your old employer.

b. Transfer the money to a qualified plan of a new employer (assuming the plan allows such transfers -- not all do).

c. Transfer the money to a "rollover" or a "regular/existing" IRA.

d. Transfer the money to a "rollover" or a "regular/existing" IRA and then immediately transfer it again to a Roth IRA.

You say option "b" probably is unavailable, so ignore that one. Option "a" may not appeal to you. That leaves "c" or "d." With "c", you continue the tax deferral until retirement, at which time you'll pay ordinary income tax on any withdrawals based on the rates in effect at that time. The "rollover" IRA preserves the eligibility to later transfer the 401k money and all earnings thereon to a new employer's qualified retirement plan. It consists of only the 401k money originally deposited plus the earnings it accumulated while in that IRA. The "regular/existing" IRA loses eligibility for later transfer to another employer's plan because in addition to the 401k monies it also includes in the same account other IRA deposits you may have made or will make to that account. If 401k money is merged with those monies, then it loses its qualified status for transfer to another employer's plan. It does, though, escape current taxation and the 10% penalty if held past age 59 1/2.

Option "d" is a way to get the money to the new Roth IRA, which becomes effective in 1998. Under the rules as I understand them so far, 401k money cannot be transferred directly to the Roth without incurring the 10% penalty. But if put in an IRA first, then the money can be withdrawn from the IRA, be taxed at ordinary rates, and then transferred to the Roth IRA free of the 10% penalty. Cumbersome, but doable. The advantage is that by paying the ordinary income taxes on that sum now and letting the rest compound untaxed over a significant number of years, it has the potential to grow quite large. When you start withdrawals, all of the money from a Roth IRA comes back to you free of tax, unlike that in a 401k, "rollover" IRA or "regular/existing" IRA. Might be worth a passing thought to you.

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