Dear Savvy Senior,
How do I go about looking for an old former company 401(k) plan that I think I contributed money to many years ago, but forgot about until recently?
Retired in Rochester
If you think you may have lost track of an old 401(k) retirement account, you aren’t alone. As Americans move from job to job, many leave scraps of their company-sponsored 401(k) plans behind, believing they’ll deal with it later, but never do.
In fact, according to a recent study, Americans have left behind around $1.35 trillion in retirement accounts that are connected to previous employers. To help you look for an old 401(k), here are some suggestions along with some free resources that can help you search.
Call Your Former Employer
The first way to look for an old 401(k) account is to contact your former employer’s human resources department. Ask them to check their plan records to see if you ever participated in their 401(k) plan, and if so, how much it’s worth. You’ll need to provide them your Social Security number and the dates you worked for them.
If you need help tracking down your former employer because it may have moved, changed owners or merged with another firm, help is available from the Labor Department (AskEBSA.dol.gov, 866-444-3272) and the Pension Rights Center and Pension Action Center (PensionRights.org/find-help).
If there was more than $5,000 in your 401(k) account when you left, there’s a good chance that your money is still in your workplace account.
Your former employer should be able to either get you the forms necessary to roll over your retirement money to a different 401(k) or to an IRA, or to give you contact information for any outside financial institution overseeing the plan on your employer’s behalf. By following the appropriate instructions, you’ll be able to move your retirement money where you want.
But if your old 401(k) account was under $5,000, your former employer has the option of transferring the money to a default individual retirement account without your consent. Your cash may go into an interest-bearing, federally insured bank account or to your state’s unclaimed property fund.
If this is the case, and your old employer cannot tell you where your 401(k) funds were sent, you’ll need to track it down yourself.
While there’s no federally run national database where you can look for all the retirement accounts that are associated with your name, a good place to start your search is with the Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database at AskEBSA.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch. And FreeErisa (FreeErisa.BenefitsPro.com), which maintains a rundown of employee benefit plan paperwork.
There’s also the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits at UnclaimedRetirementBenefits.com. This site works like a “missed connections” service whereby companies register with the site to help facilitate a reunion between ex-employees and their retirement money. But not every company is registered with this site.
To see if your 401(k) money was turned over to the state’s unclaimed property fund, use the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators website (Unclaimed.org) to search. Or you can do a multi-state search in 39 states at MissingMoney.com.
Or, if you think you were covered under a traditional pension plan that was disbanded, call the U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp. at 800-326-5678, or use the trusteed plan search tool at PBGC.gov/search-trusteed-plans.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.