How To Find Missing or Lost Retirement Accounts

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Americans have reportedly lost or abandoned more than $1 trillion in retirement benefits from previous employers. Fortunately, if you’ve misplaced retirement account funds, there are more ways than ever to find and claim your money.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the steps to take if you’re looking for retirement funds. I’ll also provide you with resources to help you locate missing 401(k) accounts and pension plans.


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Lost Retirement Accounts: A Huge Problem in the United States

By the end of this year, there will be nearly 25 million “unclaimed” 401(k) accounts in the United States, according to a recent report. So it’s a safe assumption that millions of Americans have forgotten or lost track of their 401(k) retirement money.

Capitalize, a company that provides retirement account services, published “The True Cost of Forgotten 401(k) Accounts” in June 2021. It says that Americans will have forgotten almost $1.35 trillion in 401(k) assets by the end of 2021. That’s about 20% of the total assets currently in 401(k) plans, Capitalize says.

The report also says Americans have left billions of dollars from pension plans unclaimed. Among the reasons that people lose these accounts include:

  • Changed jobs and forgot about or lost track of an old 401(k) plan
  • Spouse or family member died and benefactor is unaware of old accounts
  • Left a job without realizing the company auto-enrolled them in a 401(k) plan

Some of the resources that help find lost retirement accounts also can help you find other forms of lost money. This includes:

  • Brokerage accounts
  • Checking accounts
  • Savings accounts
  • Annuities
  • IRAs
  • Insurance policies
  • Rental or utility deposits
  • Safe deposit boxes

Take These Steps First if You’re Looking for Lost Retirement Funds

The first thing you should do when you’re looking for lost retirement accounts is to contact your previous employer(s).

If the company still exists, you should be able to reach out to the human resources department. Ask someone in the department if there’s a 401(k) account or pension plan in your name.

If you can’t remember every company for which you’ve worked, it can help to check your old financial paperwork such as retirement account statements or pay stubs. You may be able to find your retirement account number or the contact information of the plan administrator.

Not sure whether you’re owed any retirement funds and lacking any old paperwork to rifle through? There are still plenty of online resources you can use to search for your lost retirement accounts.

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How To Find Lost 401(k) Account Funds

If you suspect you’ve lost track of some old 401(k) funds, or if your old company has gone out of business, you may still be able to find that money.

If Congress passes the legislation, the proposed SECURE Act 2.0 intends to create a national, online “lost and found” for orphaned retirement plans. In the meantime, your best option is to work through the options below.

1. Check With the Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor operates the Employee Benefits Security Administration. It’s a federal organization that can help you find lost 401(k) or pension benefits.

You can search for your old employer’s Form 5500 here. Certain retirement plan administrators are required to file that form, which gives details on companies’ defined benefit plans.

2. Look Into Your State’s Unclaimed Property Database

If your former company goes bankrupt, you’re still OK. The law protects your 401(k) funds from its creditors.

Often, the brokerage firm (or custodian) that held the funds for your former company’s 401(k) plan will retain the funds for you. However, that firm can eventually turn over the money to the state’s unclaimed property fund.

Depending on the state, if your account becomes inactive or dormant for as few as three years, the administrator can mail the funds to your last known address. If those funds are returned to sender or if you can’t be reached, your assets get relinquished to the state.

A number of websites allow you to search for unclaimed money using databases in various states. Many states have their own sites, but these may be a good place to start:

3. Consider the Amount of Money in Your Old 401(k) Account

Your past employer doesn’t have to keep overseeing your 401(k) account if your balance is less than $5,000.

At less than $1,000, your old company can just write you a check.

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If you hold more than $1,000 but less than $5,000 in a 401(k) account with a company for which you no longer work, you should receive a request for payout instructions from your former employer. If you fail to respond to those instructions, your former company can roll the money into an IRA of its choice.

You can search the FreeERISA website to find an old IRA. You won’t have to pay to use the site, but it does require you to register to search its database.


How To Find Lost Pension Funds

Let’s say your previous employer owes you pension benefits. But the company goes out of business or files for bankruptcy. What happens to your money?

Often, your old employer will turn over the funds to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). That’s a federal organization. Its Missing Participants Program tracks down employees who are owed retirement money.

Although it primarily deals with pensions, the PBGC has expanded to handle 401(k) funds for companies as well. PBGC even pays out the money with interest when it connects with the account owners.

If you’re searching for pension benefits, you can also contact your former employer..

You may need to prove your work history and eligibility for pension benefits. Your old W-2 forms and your earnings statement from the Social Security Administration can help in this regard. To find this earnings statement, file Form SSA-7050 here or call 800-772-1213.

What To Do if You Can’t Get Pension Money You’re Owed

Let’s say you’re owed pension money but you’re having trouble getting it. Reach out to the U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program. It offers free legal advice on recovering pension benefits.

Note that this organization serves only 30 states.


Tips To Avoid Losing Retirement Account Funds

It’s a great idea to roll over your old 401(k) funds to an IRA or to the 401(k) plan at your new company.

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If you roll over your funds, you won’t have to worry about losing track of your old 401(k) or remembering to reallocate your portfolio. You also won’t have to face the hassles of tracking everything down if your former company goes out of business.

However, if you decide to leave your 401(k) account with your old company — which can sometimes make a lot of sense — there are a few best practices.

First, if you change your address or phone number, make sure you update your old company. Second, keep all your retirement plan documents and tax returns together. That will help you track down your money in the future.


What Other Sites Can I Visit To Check For Lost Money?

As I mentioned earlier, lost retirement accounts are just one type of unclaimed money. Here are some other resources that can help you find missing money:

  • MissingMoney.com: a government database of unclaimed property.
  • HUD.gov: If you’ve ever gotten a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loan, you may be due a refund.
  • FDIC.gov: Search for unclaimed funds from failed banks and other financial institutions on this site.
  • USA.gov: This site is full of resources to search for unclaimed money, including federal money such as tax refunds and bonds.
  • FindMyFunds.com: links to the official website of at least 25 states including some not covered by MissingMoney.com.

Final Thoughts

If you leave a job with a 401(k) account or pension plan, be intentional about keeping track of your money. That’s especially good advice if you aren’t rolling over your funds to your new company.

If you’re past that stage and need to find and reclaim lost benefits, it’s getting easier to do so, even if your previous employer went out of business. It just takes some dedication and a willingness to work systematically through some options.


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