Baby boomers have worked an average of 12 jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During each job change, retirement accounts can get lost in the shuffle. Eventually, some employees may forget about these accounts completely.
What Are Unclaimed Retirement Benefits?
Unclaimed retirement benefits are retirement account balances that have been left behind by former participants of retirement plans. Some people lose track of a retirement plan and need to find a lost 401(k) later. “Life gets in the way. You move on and forget,” says David Curry, principal and co-founder of East Paces Group in Atlanta. When you get closer to retirement, you might need to track down old 401(k) balances or pension plans.
Here is how to find lost retirement savings:
- Contact your former employer’s human resources department.
- Search for unclaimed retirement benefits.
- Work with a financial advisor.
Contact Your Former Employer
Some employees leave their pension, 401(k) account or other retirement benefit in the care of their former company when they change jobs. Sometimes people forget about retirement plans from a previous employer.
If you think you left money behind at a former employer, call that company’s human resources department. Ask for the name and phone number of the plan administrator. “Reach out to the benefits folks. Stay on the phone with them until you get your answers,” Curry says. “You’ve got to ask the right questions. Find out where it is.”
If your former company went out of business or was bought or merged with another company, it may take some research to figure out who to contact, but funds may still be available. A pension plan can be significantly more money and require more financial guidance. “Pensions can be much more complex,” Curry says. “Lots of times they don’t know the pension’s payout or what their options are, but finding it is step No. 1.”
Search for Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
There are several websites you can search for unclaimed retirement benefits:
Most states operate their own unclaimed property websites. Rules for unclaimed property may vary. For example, California law requires banks, insurance companies, corporations and other institutions to submit customer property to the State Controller’s Office when there has been no activity for a period of time, generally three years. Check your state’s website for more information.
Most unclaimed 401(k) accounts are small, but sometimes someone leaves behind a significant amount of money. Kristian Finfrock, founder and financial advisor with Retirement Income Strategies in Evansville, Wisconsin, says one client discovered $190,000 that was lost. “She knew it was lost, she just couldn’t find it,” Finfrock says. “The company changed recordkeepers. They sent notices to client homes, but she never responded to the mail. It was a little complicated, but we found the property.”
However, you need to watch out for scam artists. People sometimes get a text with links or a postcard claiming to have unclaimed property, but it’s just scammers trying to get your personal information.
Work With a Financial Advisor
A financial advisor can help you manage various retirement accounts or track down retirement benefits. Curry says lost or forgotten accounts sometimes come up in his initial information gathering meeting with a client. “We start with a financial plan and start gathering data,” Curry says. “We find out about them and their employers. We ask them, ‘After you left this company, did you roll this into another plan?’ During the exercise we find buckets they have forgotten about or that need attention.”
Make a list of each job you held and what you did with the funds in the 401(k) plan or other retirement benefits when you left the company. Some employers automatically enroll workers in a 401(k) plan, withhold a small amount from employee paychecks and deposit that money in a 401(k) account. You could have been enrolled in a 401(k) plan even if you never actively signed up for an account.
It’s a good idea to be proactive and consolidate retirement accounts each time you switch jobs to make them easier to keep track of. “When you change jobs, there are few reasons to leave behind money at an old company,” Finfrock says. “You should roll it into the new company plan or roll it into your own IRA.”
Eric Bond, a financial planner at Bond Wealth Management in Long Beach, California, says he has a client who was unsure if she had rolled over a retirement account. She had recently received a letter from the company, and he called the 800 number on the letter and found an account that hadn’t been moved.
Lost accounts can also happen when a spouse dies, especially if the deceased spouse handled the family finances. The surviving spouse might struggle to track down accounts, especially accounts in the name of the deceased spouse. To avoid the problem, Bond suggests creating a list of all accounts and account numbers and updating it every year, which he calls a playbook.