Question: Is it possible to move the majority of my balance in my company's 401k to a self-directed IRA without penalty (or quitting my job)? I'm not happy with the investment alternatives available in my company's 401k plan. David, Lewis Center, OH

Answer: In most cases the answer is no. The general rule is that employers aren't supposed to let you take money out of the 401(k) and roll it over into an IRA. You can only do that when you leave the company--voluntarily or involuntarily.

However, there is one important wrinkle (hey, legislators can't make saving for retirement simple, can they?). By law, companies can offer their employees 59 ½ or older the option of rolling over their contributions into an IRA. It's called an "in-service" distribution. In other words, you're still working for the company, you're 59 ½ or older, and you can roll the money over into an IRA. It's legal, but it's up to management whether they offer the option. A majority of large companies seem to allow it.

To learn more about the twists-and-turns in the in-service distribution world, check out this detailed article in Forbes: The Great 401(k) Escape.

Follow Chris Farrell at @cfarrellecon