In the hurried days of a big move to a new job, there’s one valuable item workers are neglecting to pack: the money their former employer invested for them in a 401(k).
There’s a lot of lost retirement savings without its rightful owners. Exactly how much is unknown — there is no one comprehensive national database on 401(k) or other lost retirement accounts. But PenChecks Trust, a California-based firm that helps companies locate former employee-owed retirement benefits, paid out $35 million to more than 15,000 missing participants in 2017 alone, says company vice president Spiro Preovolos. And Preovolos estimates that nationally the amount of lost retirement funds is “well into the billions of dollars.”
If you think some of that lost cash may be yours, here’s what to do:
Contact your former employers
Go back to your former employers with your Social Security number and the time you were employed. Better still, locate an old statement from your 401(k) plan with them. With that information, the human resources department can help reunite you with your retirement savings.
It seems an obvious place to start, but many people don’t get that far. “A majority of the people [who lose track of 401(k) plans] are on the younger side. … They aren’t thinking about retirement, or may not even know or remember” they had a 401(k) with the company, Preovolos says.
The number of people who lose track of their 401(k) is ‘going to increase significantly in the next 10 or 20 years.’
And the number of people who lose track of their 401(k) is “going to increase significantly in the next 10 or 20 years,” says Terry Dunne, a managing director at Millennium Trust, an Illinois-based financial services company that provides custody services to individual accounts. That’s thanks to the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which encourages companies to automatically enroll workers in 401(k)s or other employer-sponsored retirement plans, Dunne says.
One more potential factor: The rate of early career job-hopping is steadily increasing. A 2016 LinkedIn analysis found members who graduated between 2006 and 2010 averaged 2.9 jobs their first five years employed, compared to 1.6 jobs of workers who graduated between 1986 and 1990.
» Get a handle on your retirement: Try our retirement calculator
Check lost retirement benefits databases
If you don’t have any luck finding your 401(k) with your former employer — perhaps your employer has since gone out of business or was purchased by another company — there are a few more places to check.
If your old company was sold, contact the human resources department of the company’s new owner. Also try the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a free website founded more than two decades ago by PenChecks Trust to help locate plan participants who have dropped off the radar.
Even if your company no longer exists, your money still does. Check the abandoned plan database maintained by U.S. Department of Labor to track down the current trustee of your cash. If the retirement benefits were through a traditional pension plan for a company that no longer exists, try the unclaimed pensions database of the U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp.
» How much should I save for retirement? A step-by-step guide
Look at state unclaimed money websites
While you’re looking for your retirement money, you might as well check for any other lost dough. When Florida nurse Mary Pitman ran a random search on Missingmoney.com, a database maintained by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, she found $2,500 in stocks left behind when her father died.
“I became a believer real quick,” says Pitman, who wrote “The Little Book of Missing Money” to help others find lost cash. The unclaimed property administrators group also maintains unclaimed.org, which points users to databases of missing cash turned over to individual state treasuries.
Run a search based on states where you once lived or worked to find money owed to you. Most missing 401(k) plans wouldn’t be turned over to a state, officials say, but vested company stocks, forgotten bank accounts, uncashed paychecks or utility deposits are commonly turned over to state treasuries. In 2015 alone, $7.8 billion in missing money was turned over to states, according to the NAUPA.
Found it? Do the 401(k) rollover
Once you’ve found your 401(k), what do you do with it?
“The single best thing you can do to not lose your retirement account is to roll it over to your new employer’s 401(k) plan,” Pitman says. Then your savings — old and new — will be in one place.
But a 401(k) might come with limited investment options or higher fees. To avoid these, you might consider rolling the cash to a traditional or Roth IRA. A traditional IRA would keep your money tax-deferred; a Roth IRA would require you to pay taxes on the rolled-over amount, but with no taxes taken out when you withdraw it in retirement.
And the next time you switch jobs, don’t forget to pack your 401(k) with you. “It’s your money — the longer you wait between jobs, the more difficult and murky it becomes finding it,” Preovolos says.