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Updated on Monday, February 11, 2019
We’re all chasing the almighty dollar, but sometimes we leave behind a few hard-earned ones along the way.
In fact, billions of dollars are left in forgotten 401(k) plans in the United States that are waiting to be claimed by their rightful owners.
If you’re in search of your old 401(k), here are some tips on how you can track it down.
Where has my 401(k) gone?
There are a few scenarios in which someone might lose track of their 401(k).
If you did a bit of job-hopping early in your career, you may have moved on and forgotten about your 401(k) plan. Or perhaps your company merged with another, but your 401(k) plan didn’t transfer over. In other cases, you may have automatically enrolled in your company’s 401(k) plan without realizing it.
You know all the paperwork from human resources you ignored? The information you’re looking for probably was in there.
Regardless of why you lost track of a 401(k) plan, the good news is that whatever contributions you made — no matter how long ago that may have been — are yours to keep and always will be. Here’s what you need to know to track down your old 401(k) and make it work in your favor again.
How to find your 401(k)
1. Put in the legwork
In most cases, it’s fairly simple to track down a missing 401(k) plan. Start by contacting your former employer’s human resources department. Someone there should be able to look up your records and let you know if you have a plan and what options are available.
If the plan is now managed by another bank or brokerage firm, HR should be able to provide you with that contact information. Past 401(k) statements or plan documents also may include contact information for the plan administrator.
If your company has been acquired by another company, you may have to dig a little more. Start by searching for any news you can find online that lists details about the acquisition, including the name and location of the purchasing company. If you’re still in touch with former colleagues from that job, they may be able to provide you with the information as well.
2. National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
If your online sleuthing doesn’t turn up anything, you can search the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, which helps employers connect with former employees who haven’t claimed their retirement benefits.
Just head to the website and enter your Social Security number, and it will search for any retirement plans associated with that SSN. If one is found, the site will contact the plan administrator on your behalf, or you can do so yourself. You’ll then receive a benefit election form that allows you to specify how you would like to handle the funds.
Note that if a plan doesn’t show up on this registry, that doesn’t mean you don’t have one. It may just mean that your former employer hasn’t added your records to the database yet. The site notes that you should check back in the future, as more participants are added to the database daily.
3. U.S. Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Search
In certain cases, such as in bankruptcies, employers abandon the 401(k) plans they provided to employees. If that happens, they’re required to notify you so you can receive the funds owed to you. If you weren’t notified or believe your plan may have been abandoned, you can use the U.S. Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Search. You can search by employer or plan name, and if a plan is found, you’ll receive the plan administrator’s contact information.
You found your 401(k) plan — now what?
If find your lost 401(k), congratulations! However, it’s not time to celebrate by blowing it all on a fancy vacation or a shopping spree. You invested that money with the purpose of building a retirement nest egg — and that’s exactly where those funds should stay.
To invest your old 401(k), you can do what’s known as a rollover to avoid early withdrawal penalties. You can roll over the funds into an individual retirement account (IRA) or into another retirement plan, such as your current employer’s 401(k).
Rolling over your 401(k) into an IRA is a relatively simple process. First, you need to open an IRA, which you can do though most banks, brokerage firms and robo-advisors. The funds from your old 401(k) then can be sent directly to your new IRA. If you prefer to keep all your investments in one place and your current employer offers a decent 401(k), then you may want to consider rolling over the funds into that account (assuming rollovers are allowed).
In both cases, you can avoid withholding taxes if you roll over the funds directly via the plan administrator. If a distribution is made directly to you, you have 60 days to deposit it into your new retirement account in order to avoid taxes and penalties.
Follow the paper trail
If you think you may have money in a company-sponsored retirement plan floating around somewhere, you should take all necessary measures to track it down. You worked hard for those dollars, and you want to make sure they’re working as hard as possible for you and your future.