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Here's exactly what you need to do if you lose your job

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If your job just ended, you need to do three things ASAP:

  1.       Decide what to do with your 401(k).
  2.       Figure out your new health plan (or stay with your old one.)
  3.      Spend down your flexible spending account money if possible.

First, see if you have an outstanding loan from your 401(k).

If so, immediately contact your former employer to see if they'd be willing to accept payments directly from you instead of through payroll deductions.

This is a company decision, not based on anything required by the IRS, says Chad Parks, founder and CEO of the retirement plan provider Ubiquity Retirement and Savings in San Francisco.  

If you can't reach an agreement, the amount outstanding will be treated as a taxable distribution.

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Stay …

Assuming there's no outstanding loan, ask yourself if there's a chance you'll return to this employer. "If yes, leave it alone," Parks said. "There are provisions to let you rejoin the plan, and you will get credit for time served."

You could stay in the plan, most likely, if your account balance is above the plan's threshold for a forced cash-out — a good idea, if you're in a plan with low fees, investments you like and a website that is easy to use.

Go …

If your 401(k) balance is below the threshold, you may be forcibly removed from the plan, either into an individual retirement account they choose for you, or as a lump-sum payout.

Depending on your plan's design, they can have force you out at under $1,000 or $5,000 in assets. You should be able to get instant clarification from the plan provider by logging onto your account. 

For instance, under "Making a Withdrawal," you might see a section like "Receiving a Final Distribution" with a note on termination of employment.

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If your plan has the right to put your assets into an IRA, you're better off establishing that account yourself, or rolling over your balance into an IRA you already own. "Pay attention to fees and costs," Parks said. "Make sure you can access a variety of investments.

"If you have funded your 401(k) with pretax contributions, open a traditional IRA," he added. If your company plan has a Roth option that you used, you'll need a Roth IRA for that portion.

Do everything possible to avoid an actual distribution. You'll have to pay a penalty, be liable for taxes and you'll lose the future growth on the money for your retirement.

Your health plan


Don't assume your health plan will continue, says Brent Weiss, a certified financial planner and co-founder at advisory firm Facet Wealth in Baltimore.

You have two choices, in most cases. COBRA, or the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, lets you stay on your current health plan for up to 18 months after you lose your job. Generally, employers with at least 20 full-time employees must offer the coverage.

You'll pay 100% of the costs plus a service fee, but if you want to maintain access to the same doctors and prescription drug plan, it may be worth it.

If the cost of COBRA is too high, you'll qualify for a special enrollment period on the health-care exchanges for 60 days.

It's best to look at both options, Weiss says. 

Health accounts

If you have a health spending account, relax. No need to do anything. The HSA money is yours to keep, and you may use it for health insurance premiums on your plan. 

With an FSA, on the other hand, you are far more limited. You may even have only up until your last day of work to use the funds.

In that case, your best bet is to visit the FSA Store website, which sells eligible items and can be linked to your account. Amazon and the major drugstore chains also make it easy to buy eligible items. You might be surprised at the products that qualify, such as skincare products (as long as they have a certain SPF.)

Since it's impossible to walk into an optician's office for a pair of prescription glasses or contacts, you may be able to get them online at sites like Warby Parker or Ask your plan administrator if you'll have more time to file for reimbursement of eligible purchases.

What you need to know about enrolling in a health-care plan and staying out of medical debt