Cashing Out your 401(k)
Understanding Roth 401(k)s
Roth IRA Basics
Find Out If You Have Lost or Forgotten Retirement Accounts
If you think you might have an unclaimed 401(k) or pension plan, it’s important to take a little time to search for it.
Published December 21st, 2020
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- If you’ve switched jobs at least once, you may have retirement savings you’ve forgotten in the form of 401(k) accounts and pensions.
- There are tools you can use to perform a quick 401(k) search. You can also look for pensions using the Department of Labor’s online tool.
- These tools will only help you find the funds. You’ll have to use the information to claim them.
After decades of hard work, you’re finally ready to retire. But there have also been decades of managing your money, which may involve funding various retirement accounts. If, like most people, you had multiple employers during your career, it can be even tougher to keep track of every retirement account you have.
If you think you might have an unclaimed 401(k) or pension plan, it’s important to take a little time to search for it. Even if it’s only a few hundred dollars, that money will come in handy after you retire. Here are some tips on tracking down all your retirement accounts and claiming any funds you find.
How Many 401(k)s are Lost Each Year?
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), hundreds of millions of dollars in unclaimed retirement benefits are reported to the U.S. government every year, with only some of it eventually claimed. The exact numbers are spotty, and based on the most recent survey conducted by GAO in 2016, but that survey found that of $25 million in retirement savings turned over to the government in 2016, only $601, on average, in 401(k) plan funds were claimed.
The reason for so many lost 401(k) plans is that they’re typically tied to employment. As employees are leaving an employer, they pay attention to that final paycheck and reimbursement for unused vacation days, but they may completely neglect any retirement savings accounts that were a perk of that employment.
How to Find an Old Retirement Account
The good news is, it’s never too late to find old 401(k) plans. They still belong to you, no matter the circumstances surrounding the end of your employment. But the first step is to track it down. You can first try looking through your paperwork or searching your email account, but if that doesn’t work out, there are resources you can use. Search the National Registry
The easiest way to search for any outstanding retirement plans is through the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. This is a free searchable database of retirement funds that have been reported as unclaimed. Retirees and estate managers can search the databases, as can third parties who have the required information.
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits 401(k) and pension search can be conducted using only your Social Security number. It’s important to note that the site is set up for individuals wanting to find a 401(k) with a Social Security number, but anyone with that number can search for funds.
What To Do If You’ve Lost a Pension
If your search for unclaimed retirement benefits is specific to a pension rather than a 401(k), the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration can help. The site has an Abandoned Plans section that details plans that have been neglected by the employers who sponsored them. This often happens when an employer filed bankruptcy or the plan sponsor is no longer around to administer it.
Another resource for tracking down a lost pension is the U.S. Department of Labor’s Form 5500 Search. Employers are required to report their retirement details using this form, so a search can help you track down the information you need to get in touch with your plan administrator.
If your pension was governmental, you should go through the government website specific to your city, county, or state. State and local government pensions can be tracked down through the personnel office. Military pensions are administered through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and information on federal government pensions is available through the Federal Employees Retirement System (FERS).
Whatever search you use to ask, “Do I have retirement money somewhere?” these databases are solely designed to identify those funds. You’ll still have to contact the plan administrator or former employer to get your money. It will at least give you the information you’ll need to get started, though.
Whether you use find my 401(k) tools or not, you’ll need to get in touch with your former employer, assuming it’s still in business. There’s also the option of contacting the company administering the retirement plan. You may have to jump through some hoops to prove your identity or make multiple phone calls, but it’s worth the extra legwork if there’s a check at the end of it.
What Should I Do with My Lost Retirement Account?
Once you’ve tracked down your lost retirement funds, you have some decisions you need to make. You can, of course, withdraw the funds and spend them, but there are a few reasons that might be a bad idea. If you’re withdrawing funds from a forgotten 401(k) or other savings plan, take some time to research the taxes or penalties you’ll have to pay on any money you take out. Unless you put after-tax funds in, you’ll be taxed on the funds as you would with any type of income.
If you’re 72 years old, though, you’ll need to pay attention to the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) to avoid a penalty. The amount you’re required to take each year is based on a calculation that divides your account balance by your life expectancy factor. You can use the IRS Required Minimum Distribution Worksheet to help with that.
For the remainder of the amount, you may choose to leave it alone, withdraw it, or roll it into an IRA. You may find you can save on fees by rolling the amount over, but after retirement, the fees involved in doing that may eat into any cost savings. Weigh your options, including calculating the income taxes you’ll owe on any amount you withdraw, before making any decisions.
As easy as it is to find a 401(k) with Social Security number and look up your pension, you should be able to identify any funds that are out there. Retrace all your career stops and make sure you’ve accounted for every pension, IRA, 401(k), and savings account you’ve ever had. Once you’ve tracked down your forgotten funds, we recommend consulting a Certified Financial Planner®️ who can help you make the most of the money.
Cashing Out your 401(k)
Understanding Roth 401(k)s
Roth IRA Basics
Stephanie Faris has written about finance for entrepreneurs and marketing firms since 2013. She spent nearly a year as a writer for a credit card processing service and has written about finance for numerous marketing firms and entrepreneurs. Her work has appeared on Money Under 30, The Motley Fool, MoneyGeek, E-commerce Insiders, and GoBankingRates.