Options Exercise, Assignment, and More: A Beginner's Guide

March 15, 2023 Beginner
Learn about options exercise and options assignment before taking a position, not afterward. This guide can help you navigate the dynamics of options expiration.

So your trading account has gotten options approval, and you recently made that first trade—say, a long call in XYZ with a strike price of $105. Then expiration day approaches and, at the time, XYZ is trading at $105.30.

Wait. The stock's above the strike. Is that in the money1 (ITM) or out of the money2 (OTM)? Do I need to do something? Do I have enough money in my account? Help!

Don't be that trader. The time to learn the mechanics of options expiration is before you make your first trade.

Here's a guide to help you navigate options exercise3 and assignment4—along with a few other basics.

In the money or out of the money?

The buyer ("owner") of an option has the right, but not the obligation, to exercise the option on or before expiration. A call option5 gives the owner the right to buy the underlying security; a put option6 gives the owner the right to sell the underlying security.

Conversely, when you sell an option, you may be assigned—at any time regardless of the ITM amount—if the option owner chooses to exercise. The option seller has no control over assignment and no certainty as to when it could happen. Once the assignment notice is delivered, it's too late to close the position and the option seller must fulfill the terms of the options contract:

  • A long call exercise results in buying the underlying stock at the strike price.
  • A short call assignment results in selling the underlying stock at the strike price.
  • A long put exercise results in selling the underlying stock at the strike price.
  • A short put assignment results in buying the underlying stock at the strike price.

An option will likely be exercised if it's in the option owner's best interest to do so, meaning it's optimal to take or to close a position in the underlying security at the strike price rather than at the current market price. After the market close on expiration day, ITM options may be automatically exercised, whereas OTM options are not and typically expire worthless (often referred to as being "abandoned"). The table below spells it out.

Table describes scenarios where the underlying stock price is higher than the strike price or lower than the strike price
  • If the underlying stock price is...
  • ...higher than the strike price
  • ...lower than the strike price
  • If the underlying stock price is...
    A long call is...
  • ...higher than the strike price
    ...ITM and typically exercised
  • ...lower than the strike price
    ...OTM and typically abandoned
  • If the underlying stock price is...
    A short call is...
  • ...higher than the strike price
    ...ITM and typically assigned
  • ...lower than the strike price
    ...OTM and typically abandoned
  • If the underlying stock price is...
    A long put is...
  • ...higher than the strike price
    ...OTM and typically abandoned
  • ...lower than the strike price
    ...ITM and typically exercised
  • If the underlying stock price is...
    A short put is...
  • ...higher than the strike price
    ...OTM and typically abandoned
  • ...lower than the strike price
    ...ITM and typically assigned

The guidelines in the table assume a position is held all the way through expiration. Of course, you typically don't need to do that. And in many cases, the usual strategy is to close out a position ahead of the expiration date. We'll revisit the close-or-hold decision in the next section and look at ways to do that. But assuming you do carry the options position until the end, there are a few things you need to consider:

  • Know your specs. Each standard equity options contract controls 100 shares of the underlying stock. That's pretty straightforward. Non-standard options may have different deliverables. Non-standard options can represent a different number of shares, shares of more than one company stock, or underlying shares and cash. Other products—such as index options or options on futures—have different contract specs.
  • Stock and options positions will match and close. Suppose you're long 300 shares of XYZ and short one ITM call that's assigned. Because the call is deliverable into 100 shares, you'll be left with 200 shares of XYZ if the option is assigned, plus the cash from selling 100 shares at the strike price.
  • It's automatic, for the most part. If an option is ITM by as little as $0.01 at expiration, it will automatically be exercised for the buyer and assigned to a seller. However, there's something called a do not exercise (DNE) request that a long option holder can submit if they want to abandon an option. In such a case, it's possible that a short ITM position might not be assigned. For more, see the note below on pin risk7?
  • You'd better have enough cash. If an option on XYZ is exercised or assigned and you are "uncovered" (you don't have an existing long or short position in the underlying security), a long or short position in the underlying stock will replace the options. A long call or short put will result in a long position in XYZ; a short call or long put will result in a short position in XYZ. For long stock positions, you need to have enough cash to cover the purchase or else you'll be issued a margin8 call, which you must meet by adding funds to your account. But that timeline may be short, and the broker, at its discretion, has the right to liquidate positions in your account to meet a margin call9. If exercise or assignment involves taking a short stock position, you need a margin account and sufficient funds in the account to cover the margin requirement.
  • Short equity positions are risky business. An uncovered short call or long put, if assigned or exercised, will result in a short stock position. If you're short a stock, you have potentially unlimited risk because there's theoretically no limit to the potential price increase of the underlying stock. There's also no guarantee the brokerage firm can continue to maintain that short position for an unlimited time period. So, if you're a newbie, it's generally inadvisable to carry an options position into expiration if there's a chance you might end up with a short stock position.

A note on pin risk: It's not common, but occasionally a stock settles right on a strike price at expiration. So, if you were short the 105-strike calls and XYZ settled at exactly $105, there would be no automatic assignment, but depending on the actions taken by the option holder, you may or may not be assigned—and you may not be able to trade out of any unwanted positions until the next business day.

But it goes beyond the exact price issue. What if an option is ITM as of the market close, but news comes out after the close (but before the exercise decision deadline) that sends the stock price up or down through the strike price? Remember: The owner of the option could submit a DNE request.

The uncertainty and potential exposure when a stock price and the strike price are the same at expiration is called pin risk. The best way to avoid it is to close the position before expiration.

The decision tree: How to approach expiration

As expiration approaches, you have three choices. Depending on the circumstances—and your objectives and risk tolerance—any of these might be the best decision for you.

1. Let the chips fall where they may. Some positions may not require as much maintenance. An options position that's deeply OTM will likely go away on its own, but occasionally an option that's been left for dead springs back to life. If it's a long option, the unexpected turn of events might feel like a windfall; if it's a short option that could've been closed out for a penny or two, you might be kicking yourself for not doing so.

Conversely, you might have a covered call (a short call against long stock), and the strike price was your exit target. For example, if you bought XYZ at $100 and sold the 110-strike call against it, and XYZ rallies to $113, you might be content selling the stock at the $110 strike price to monetize the $10 profit (plus the premium you took in when you sold the call but minus any transaction fees). In that case, you can let assignment happen. But remember, assignment is likely in this scenario, but it is not guaranteed.

2. Close it out. If you've met your objectives for a trade, then it might be time to close it out. Otherwise, you might be exposed to risks that aren't commensurate with any added return potential (like the short option that could've been closed out for next to nothing, then suddenly came back into play). Keep in mind, there is no guarantee that there will be an active market for an options contract, so it is possible to end up stuck and unable to close an options position.

The close-it-out category also includes ITM options that could result in an unwanted long or short stock position or the calling away of a stock you didn't want to part with. And remember to watch the dividend calendar. If you're short a call option near the ex-dividend date of a stock, the position might be a candidate for early exercise. If so, you may want to consider getting out of the option position well in advance—perhaps a week or more.

3. Roll it to something else. Rolling, which is essentially two trades executed as a spread, is the third choice. One leg closes out the existing option; the other leg initiates a new position. For example, suppose you're short a covered call on XYZ at the July 105 strike, the stock is at $103, and the call's about to expire. You could attempt to roll it to the August 105 strike. Or, if your strategy is to sell a call that's $5 OTM, you might roll to the August 108 call. Keep in mind that rolling strategies include multiple contract fees, which may impact any potential return.

The bottom line on options expiration

You don't enter an intersection and then check to see if it's clear. You don't jump out of an airplane and then test the rip cord. So do yourself a favor. Get comfortable with the mechanics of options expiration before making your first trade.

1Describes an option with intrinsic value (not just time value). A call option is in the money (ITM) if the stock price is above the strike price. A put option is ITM if the stock price is below the strike price. For calls, it's any strike lower than the price of the underlying equity. For puts, it's any strike that's higher.

2Describes an option with no intrinsic value. A call option is out of the money (OTM) if its strike price is above the price of the underlying stock. A put option is OTM if its strike price is below the price of the underlying stock.

3An options contract gives the owner the right but not the obligation to buy (in the case of a call) or sell (in the case of a put) the underlying security at the strike price, on or before the option's expiration date. When the owner claims the right (i.e. takes a long or short position in the underlying security) that's known as exercising the option.

4Assignment happens when someone who is short a call or put is forced to sell (in the case of the call) or buy (in the case of a put) the underlying stock. For every option trade there is a buyer and a seller; in other words, for anyone short an option, there is someone out there on the long side who could exercise.

5A call option gives the owner the right, but not the obligation, to buy shares of stock or other underlying asset at the options contract's strike price within a specific time period. The seller of the call is obligated to deliver, or sell, the underlying stock at the strike price if the owner of the call exercises the option.

6Gives the owner the right, but not the obligation, to sell shares of stock or other underlying assets at the options contract's strike price within a specific time period. The put seller is obligated to purchase the underlying security at the strike price if the owner of the put exercises the option.

7When the stock settles right at the strike price at expiration.

8Margin is borrowed money that's used to buy stocks or other securities. In margin trading, a brokerage firm lends an account owner a portion of the purchase price (typically 30% to 50% of the total price). The loan in the margin account is collateralized by the stock, and if the value of the stock drops below a certain level, the owner will be asked to deposit marginable securities and/or cash into the account or to sell/close out security positions in the account.

9A margin call is issued when your account value drops below the maintenance requirements on a security or securities due to a drop in the market value of a security or when a customer exceeds their buying power. Margin calls may be met by depositing funds, selling stock, or depositing securities. Charles Schwab may forcibly liquidate all or part of your account without prior notice, regardless of your intent to satisfy a margin call, in the interests of both parties.

Options carry a high level of risk and are not suitable for all investors. Certain requirements must be met to trade options through Schwab. Please read the Options Disclosure Document titled "Characteristics and Risks of Standardized Options" before considering any options transaction. Supporting documentation for any claims or statistical information is available upon request.

With long options, investors may lose 100% of funds invested. Covered calls provide downside protection only to the extent of the premium received and limit upside potential to the strike price plus premium received.

Short options can be assigned at any time up to expiration regardless of the in-the-money amount.

Investing involves risks, including loss of principal. Hedging and protective strategies generally involve additional costs and do not assure a profit or guarantee against loss.

Commissions, taxes, and transaction costs are not included in this discussion but can affect final outcomes and should be considered. Please contact a tax advisor for the tax implications involved in these strategies.

The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered an individualized recommendation or personalized investment advice. The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for his or her own particular situation before making any investment decision.

All expressions of opinion are subject to change without notice in reaction to shifting market conditions. Data contained herein from third-party providers is obtained from what are considered reliable sources. However, its accuracy, completeness, or reliability cannot be guaranteed.

Examples provided are for illustrative purposes only and not intended to be reflective of results you can expect to achieve.

Short selling is an advanced trading strategy involving potentially unlimited risks and must be done in a margin account. Margin trading increases your level of market risk. For more information, please refer to your account agreement and the Margin Risk Disclosure Statement.