No one intentionally loses money or leaves it behind. Yet, Americans have left billions of dollars in unclaimed 401(k) accounts. You may have changed jobs and, in the rush to wrap things up or accommodate a move to another state, neglected to take your account information with you.
Regardless of how or when this happened, there are a number of steps you can take to try to recover your account. The Pension Action Center at UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute provides free legal counseling to people living in one of the six New England states and Illinois and has successfully helped people recoup more than $60 million in retirement benefits. While not always a simple task, they can help you to locate your 401(k).
“People lose track of their 401(k) for a variety of reasons,” says Anna-Marie Tabor. “But, there are steps you can take to track down and claim your money. It may take some time and research, but this is money you earned and saved for your retirement. When it’s time to retire, you will be glad you invested the time to try and locate it now.”
Among the first steps to take, make sure that you did not already cash out or rollover your 401(k) years ago. Reach out to your former employer.
“Keeping your 401(k) statements and previous tax returns provides you with some paperwork to document that you have an account,” says Tabor. “Your old paystubs may also show that you contributed to a 401(k).”
If your former employer was bought out or merged with another company, the U.S. Department of Labor has a database (https://www.askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/) that allows individuals to search for plans that are in the process of — or have already been — terminated. It also provides contact information for the termination administrator.
Another reason your account may be hard to find is because your employer transferred your 401(k) account to an individual retirement account (IRA). Yes, they can do that! If your former employer was unable to locate you to ask what you wanted to do with the money in your account, they can make a “forced transfer” or “automatic rollover.” Federal law allows employers to make these transfers if your account is $5000 or less.
“There are several institutions that specialize in managing force-transferred accounts,” says Tabor. “You should contact them directly — by email, phone or letter — to see if they have your account.”
The Pension Action Center (PAC) has created a new fact sheet with the lists of these institutions as well as additional steps and resources for you to locate and reclaim your lost 401(k).