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How to find an old 401(k)
There are billions of dollars sitting unclaimed in ghosted workplace retirement plans — potentially up to $1.65 trillion in 29.2 million lost 401(k) plan accounts, according to Capitalize, a company that helps people find and transfer retirement accounts. And some of it might be yours if you’ve ever left a job and forgotten to take your vested retirement savings with you.
But no matter how long the cobwebs have been forming on your old 401(k), that money is still yours. All you have to do is find it.
1. Contact your old employer about your old 401(k)
Employers will try to track down a departed employee who left money behind in an old 401(k), but their efforts are only as good as the information they have on file. Beyond providing 30 to 60 days notice of their intentions, there are no laws that say how hard they have to look or for how long.
If it’s been a while since you’ve heard from your former company, or if you’ve moved or misplaced the notices they sent, start by contacting your former company’s human resources department or find an old 401(k) account statement and contact the plan administrator, the financial firm that held the account and sent you updates.
If there was more than $5,000 in your retirement account when you left, there’s a good chance that your money is still in your workplace account. While you could leave the funds there, another alternative is a 401(k) rollover to move that money into another retirement account. The IRS requires you to start taking distributions at age 73, though those born in 1960 or later will have until age 75 to take out funds under the new Secure 2.0 Act.
Plan administrators have more leeway with abandoned amounts up to $5,000. If the balance is $1,000 or less, they can simply cut a check for the total and send it to your last known address, leaving you to deal with any tax consequences. For amounts more than $1,000 up to $5,000, they're allowed to move funds into an individual retirement account without your consent. These specialty IRAs are set up at a financial institution that has been federally authorized to manage the account.
The good news if a new IRA was opened for the rollover: Your money retains its tax-protected status. The bad: You have to find the new trustee, but that will change Jan. 1, 2024. Beginning then, plan providers will be allowed to automatically transfer your default IRA into the 401(k) plan offered at your new job.
2. Find your 401(k) with your Social Security number
If the old plan administrator cannot tell you where your 401(k) funds went, there are several databases that can assist. You can use your Social Security number to find your lost 401(k) by popping it into some of the databases below.
National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits works like a “missed connections” service where companies register with the site to help facilitate a reunion between ex-employees and their retirement money. Not every company is registered with this site, so if none of these searches yields results, move on to the next step.
Department of Labor's abandoned plan database
Another good place to start is with the Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database. It's provided by the Employee Benefits Security Administration. The tool helps you find out if you have a plan that's terminated, or is in the process of being terminated. You can also figure out who is doing the terminating in case you need to contact them directly.
U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp. database of unclaimed pensions
If you were covered under a traditional pension plan that was disbanded, search the U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp. database of unclaimed pensions. You'll need to provide your name, address, Social Security number, the employer’s name, and the dates you worked for the company, as well as your contact phone number.
FreeErisa, an employee benefit data resource, also maintains a rundown of employee benefit plan paperwork. Users can sign up for free, but may have to pay for advanced search tools.
Capitalize is another service that helps people find old 401(k)s with major employers and companies. The search is free, but users will have to pay for premium services such as rollovers and account management.
3. Search unclaimed property databases
If a company terminates its retirement plan, it has more options on what it’s allowed to do with the unclaimed money, no matter what the account balance.
It might be rolled into an IRA set up on your behalf, deposited at a bank, or left with the state’s unclaimed property fund. Hit up missingmoney.com, run in part by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, to do a multistate search of state unclaimed property divisions.
Note that if a plan administrator cashed out and transferred your money to a bank account or the state, a portion of your savings may have been withheld to pay the IRS.
That’s because this kind of transfer is considered a distribution (aka cashing out) and is subject to income taxes and penalties. Some 401(k) plan administrators withhold a portion of the balance to cover any potential taxes and send you and the IRS tax form 1099-R to report the income. Others don’t, which could leave you with a surprise IRS IOU to pay.
What to do with an old 401(k)
You might be able to leave your old 401(k) money where it is if it’s in your former employer’s plan. One reason to do so is if you have access to certain mutual funds that charge lower management fees available to institutional clients — such as 401(k) plans — that aren’t available to individual investors. But you’re not allowed to contribute to the plan anymore since you no longer work there.
Reasons to move your money to an IRA or to roll it into a current employer’s plan include access to a broader range of investments, such as individual stocks, a wider selection of mutual funds, and more control over account fees, including plan administration fees.
» Ready to get started? See the best IRA providers for a 401(k) rollover.
If your money was moved into an IRA on your behalf, you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — leave it there. Once you find your money, it’s easy to switch brokers and move your investments into a new IRA of your choosing without triggering any taxes.
If you’re not sure where an old 401(k) plan is, there are steps you can take to find it. And though it might take some effort, the end result is worth it — every little bit helps when it comes to maximizing your retirement savings.
And the next time you switch jobs, make sure to take your retirement loot with you by either rolling it into your new employer plan or with an IRA. You could also leave it where it is, but be sure to weigh the benefits carefully and to keep track of the account details.