Rollover rules can create long wait for retirement-plan access

Q: I asked my employer to roll over my small 401(k). They said I can't get the money until March 2004. I heard there were government rules that direct employers to pay upon demand. Can you help?
R.R., via e-mail

A: Several factors can affect the timing of a rollover: The plan itself may provide a time frame. In rare cases, distributions are not made until the participant reaches retirement age, usually age 65, even if the participant terminates employment earlier.

But in most cases, distributions are made 90 days from the date a written request has been received.

Next, your distribution cannot be processed until after the next valuation date - when participant account balances are determined. Firms can determine account balances daily, monthly, quarterly, semiannually, or even annually.

How your money is invested also affects the timing of your distribution. While most investments can be liquidated quickly, a few may take longer. Processing paperwork after the valuation date can take as long as a few weeks.

Michael Williams, a registered investment adviser in Denver, suggests asking your employer for a copy of the Summary Plan Description, which spells out these dates and how payouts are calculated. You have a legal right to ask for this and any other documents under which the plan was established or is operated.

Some rules regarding retirement-plan portability have been changed, but Mr. Williams hasn't heard of any legislation that requires a plan administrator to distribute funds for rollover in uniform time frames. He thinks your former employer probably wants your money rolled over just as soon as you do. The company is responsible for and must pay fees on your account for as long as your money remains in its plan.

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