There are billions of unclaimed dollars in ghost workplace pension plans. And part of it can be yours if you’ve ever quit a job and forgot to take your earned retirement savings with you.
But no matter how long the cobwebs have been forming on your old 401 (k), that money still belongs to you. All you have to do is find it.
How do I find my old 401 (k)?
If you don’t know where your old 401 (k) is, it can be in three places. Here’s where to find your old 401 (k):
Where you left it, in the old account created by your employer.
In a new account created by the 401 (k) plan administrator.
In the hands of your state’s unclaimed property division.
Here’s how to start your search:
1. Contact your former employer about your old 401 (k)
Employers will try to locate a departed employee who left money in an old 401 (k), but their efforts are only as good as the information they have. Beyond the 30-60 day notification of their intentions, there is no law specifying how much or for how long they must seek.
If it’s been a while since you’ve heard of your old company, or if you’ve moved or misplaced the notices they sent, first contact your old company’s human resources department or find an old statement. 401 (k) account and contact the plan administrator, the financial company that held the account and sent you updates.
“You might be able 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, chances are your money is still in your work account. You may be allowed to leave it there for as long as you want until age 72, when the IRS requires you to start taking distributions, but you may not want to. Here is how to decide whether to keep your money in an old 401 (k).
Plan administrators have more leeway with waived amounts of 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 face all the tax consequences. For amounts over $ 1,000 to $ 5,000, they are allowed to transfer funds to an individual retirement account without your consent. These specialized IRAs are set up at a financial institution that has been authorized by the federal government to manage the account.
The good news if a new IRA were opened for rolling: your money retains its tax-protected status. The bad: you have to find the new trustee.
2. Find the new address of your money
If the former plan administrator can’t tell you where your 401 (k) funds went, there are several databases that can help:
3. Search databases for unclaimed properties
If a business terminates its retirement plan, it has more options about what it is allowed to do with the unclaimed money, regardless of the account balance.
“If your account was cashed, you may owe the IRS.“
It could be rolled into an IRA set up in your name, deposited in a bank, or left with the state’s unclaimed real estate fund. Hit missingmoney.com, managed in part by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Trustees, to conduct a multi-state search of unclaimed property divisions of the state.
Note that if a plan administrator cashed and transferred your money to a bank or government account, some of your savings may have been withheld to pay the IRS. This is because this type of transfer is considered a distribution (i.e. cash out) and is subject to income taxes and penalties. Some 401 (k) plan administrators withhold part of the balance to cover potential taxes and send you along with IRS Tax Form 1099-R to report the income. Others don’t, which might leave you with an IRS IOU surprise to pay.
What to do with an old 401 (k)
You may be able to leave your old 401 (k) money where it is if it is in your former employer’s plan. One of the reasons for doing this is if you have access to certain mutual funds that charge lower management fees available to institutional clients – like 401 (k) plans – that are not available to individual investors. But you are no longer allowed to contribute to the plan since you are no longer working on it.
Reasons to move your money to an IRA or move it into a current employer’s plan include access to a wider range of investments, such as individual stocks and a greater selection of mutual funds, and better control of account fees.
If your money was transferred to an IRA on your behalf, you don’t – and probably shouldn’t – leave it there. GAO’s Forced Transfer IRA study found that annual fees (up to $ 115) and low investment returns (0.01% to 2.05% in prudent investments dictated by ministry regulations of Labor) “can steadily decrease a relatively low stagnant balance.”
Unless you’ve enjoyed this little scavenger hunt, the next time you change jobs, take your retirement loot with you.