Hundreds of millions of dollars in 401(k) retirement account and traditional pension plan assets are going unclaimed. These days it’s not uncommon for workers to change employers 10 times or more over the course of a career—and all that job hopping can make it tough to keep tabs on employer-sponsored retirement plans.
People may lose track of 401(k) accounts when they don’t roll them into IRAs or new employer 401(k)s after changing jobs. They cannot locate their pension plans when former employers are absorbed into larger companies or go out of business. And they might fail to even realize they qualify for benefits from long-ago employers’ pension plans.
It can take a bit of digging to track down a lost pension or 401(k), but it can be well worth it. Here’s how to do it…
• Call your former employers. Explain to the human resources department at each former employer that you worked there and are trying to determine whether you still have money in a retirement plan.
• Search the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s database for unclaimed traditional pensions under your name (Search.PBGC.gov). The PBGC insures private-sector traditional pension plans. Its database should have information about your lost benefits if your former employer has terminated its plan. Unfortunately, the database does not include missing 401(k)s.
• Call the Pension Rights Center (PRC) to request help tracking down missing 401(k)s or traditional pensions. This non-profit organization (where I work) provides free assistance with pension problems. 888-420-6550, PensionRights.org.
• Visit PensionHelp America (PHA) to find help from the Pension Counseling and Information Program (PCIP), a government agency or legal services provider. The PCIP provides free legal advice to people in 30 states and can help people who need help finding a retirement benefit from a former employer. PensionHelp.org
•Search unclaimed property databases in every state where you lived or worked. These databases can be accessed through Unclaimed.org or MissingMoney.com. Your retirement plan dollars might have ended up in state coffers if a plan administrator lost track of you. The good news is that you can reclaim this money if you locate it.
Two special situations…
* If a former employer insists that you cashed out your retirement plan or rolled it into a different retirement account but you have no recollection of doing so, ask for the date when this transaction occurred and to what institution the money was sent.
If you still have a copy of your tax return from that year, any rollover or retirement plan cash-out should be noted on the return even if it did not generate income taxes.
Examples: A 401(k) rollover might be reported on Form 1040A line 12a or Form 1040 line 16a. A 401(k) cash-out prior to retirement age might be reported on Form 5329. A traditional pension lump-sum distribution might be reported on Form 4972 and/or as ordinary income on Form 1040 or 1040A. (Tax forms and rules sometimes change, so a cash-out or rollover might be reported in a different location on a return filed many years ago.)
If you still have retirement plan and/or financial company account statements covering the time when the transfer or cash-out supposedly occurred, check these for any record of money moving the way the plan administrator says it did. If your records do not go back far enough, contact the plan sponsor or financial institution that you were told received the transferred assets and ask whether it can provide the relevant records.
If you locate statements or tax returns suggesting that the rollover or cash-out did not occur as your former employer claims, provide copies of these to the plan administrator and ask it to reconsider its position that you removed your money from its retirement plan. Contact the Pension Rights Center if the administrator does not reverse its position.
• If you cannot recall the names of all your prior employers, you could file Form SSA-7050 with the Social Security Administration to request a “Detailed Earnings Report” listing all of your employers (SSA.gov/forms/ssa-7050.pdf). There is a fee of $115, so do this only if you believe there is a good chance you are missing a 401(k) or pension and forgetting a former employer…and a thorough search of your files doesn’t lead to you recalling who that employer might be.