There are billions of dollars sitting unclaimed in ghosted workplace retirement plans. And some of it might be yours if you’ve ever left a job and forgotten to take your vested retirement savings with you.
It happens. A lot.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that from 2004 through 2013, more than 25 million people with money in an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) left at least one account behind after their last day on the job.
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.
Following the money
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, there are three main places your money could be:
- Right where you left it, in the old account set up by your employer.
- In a new account set up by the 401(k) plan administrator.
- In the hands of your state’s unclaimed property division.
Here’s how to start your search:
Contact your old employer
Start with 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.
You may be allowed to leave your money in your old plan, but you might not want to.
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. You may be allowed to leave it there for as long as you like until you’re age 70½, when the IRS requires you to start taking distributions, but you might not want to. Here’s how to decide whether to keep your money in an old 401(k).
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.
Look up your money’s new address
If the old plan administrator cannot tell you where your 401(k) funds went, there are several databases that can assist:
- A good place to start is with the Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database.
- FreeErisa also maintains a rundown of employee benefit plan paperwork.
- If you were covered under a traditional pension plan that was disbanded, search the U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp. database of unclaimed pensions.
- There’s also the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, which works like a “missed connections” service whereby 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.
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.
If your account was cashed out, you may owe the IRS.
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 it
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 — like 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 and a wider selection of mutual funds, and more control over account fees.
If your money was moved into an IRA on your behalf, you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — leave it there. The GAO study of forced-transfer IRAs found that annual fees (up to $115) and low investment returns (0.01% to 2.05% in conservative investments dictated by the Department of Labor regulations) “can steadily decrease a comparatively small stagnant balance.”
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.
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Unless you enjoyed this little treasure hunt, the next time you switch jobs, take your retirement loot with you.