Dear Savvy Senior,
How do I find an old 401(k) that I think I contributed money to at a former employer?
If you think you may have lost track of a 401(k) retirement account, you aren't alone. As Americans jump 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. To help you look for an old 401(k), here are some suggestions along with some free resources that can help you search.
The first way to find a previous 401(k) account is to contact your old 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.
They 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 get, you'll be able to move your retirement money where you want.
If you don't have contact information for your old employer, check your old records to see if you kept an old 401(k) statement. Statements will typically have the information you need to get in contact with either your employer or a plan administrator.
If you need help tracking down your former employer because it may have moved, changed owners or merged with another firm, free help is available from sources like the Labor Department (AskEBSA.dol.gov, 866-444-3272) and the Pension Rights Center and Pension Action Center (PensionRights.org/find-help).
These services can tap into public databases that list incorporations and bankruptcies and may be able to help you dig up a plan's most recently filed Form 5500, the annual report that must be filed with the IRS, PBGC and the Labor Department. This form contains the plan's contact information and the employer's identification number, which can be used to locate any plan that inherited the assets in a merger, acquisition or sale.
You can also find recently filed 5500s yourself at websites like FreeERISA.com.
Finding a lost 401(k) account can be trickier if it's worth less than $5,000, because your former employer can transfer the money to a default individual retirement account without consent. Your cash may go into an interest-bearing, federally insured bank account or to your state's unclaimed property fund.
To search for a lost plan, use the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits at UnclaimedRetirementBenefits.com. This website matches former employers with past employees who have unclaimed retirement funds. This is a secure and free service, but you'll need to provide your Social Security number to search.
It can also be challenging to track down a lost 401(k) account if your former employer goes bankrupt and abandons the plan. In this case, use the U.S. Department of Labor's Abandoned Plan Database at AskEBSA.dol.gov/abandonedplansearch.
Starting in 2018, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC.gov) will start accepting transfers of missing participants' accounts from terminating 401(k) plans. When the participants are found, it will pay them that money plus interest. The agency also plans to launch a registry of terminated 401(k) plans that sent money elsewhere, so missing participants can more easily find their accounts.
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.