A 401(k) plan is an important element of retirement savings for many workers, but it's easy to forget about a 401(k) if you’ve changed jobs often. In some cases, so much time has passed since you left your employer that you might not remember if you even had a 401(k). Employers and plan providers send participants 401(k) statements periodically, but if you moved without forwarding your address, then you likely didn’t receive them. It might take some time, but there are ways to discover if you have a 401(k) with a former employer.
The simplest way to find out if you had a 401(k) plan with an old employer is to contact the employer. When an employee leaves the company and does nothing with her 401(k), her employer may keep her account active. Depending on the amount in her account, the employer might send her a check for the balance. Or it might rollover her balance into an individual retirement account with a financial institution. The quickest way to find out is to call your old employer's HR department or plan administrator and see if a 401(k) plan is in your name. If your employer went bankrupt and you had a 401(k), your money still belongs to you, as your funds are held by a custodian that protects your money from your employer and its creditors. In this case, you would need to contact the custodian to see if you had a 401(k).
The U.S. Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration says there is no single reason why an employer would abandon its retirement plan. For instance, it might happen if the business owner died, was imprisoned, fled the country or filed for bankruptcy. Search EBSA’s online Abandoned Plan Program to see if your employer’s 401(k) plan is in the process of being terminated or has already been terminated. If your search is successful, the system will give you the name of the administrator that terminated the plan. You can then contact the administrator to find out about your 401(k). If your search is unsuccessful, phone your regional EBSA office directly for assistance.
EBSA administrates the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, which is the federal law that regulates 401(k) plans. Most employers with 401(k) plans must file Form 5500 annually with EBSA, which verifies that the plan adheres to ERISA’s standards. Use the Benefits Pro website to search for your employer’s Form 5500, which lists contact information for your employer, the person who prepared the form and the plan administrator (see Resources).
Try searching the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits’ online system to see if your former employer listed you as a missing participant. If your employer could not locate you after you left the company, it might have listed you in the NRURB’s database. Simply enter your Social Security number, and the system will check to see if you have unclaimed retirement money listed in its database with the employer that originally reported it (see Resources).
It’s possible you had a traditional pension plan instead of a 401(k). In this case, you can search the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation website to see if you have an unclaimed pension. The PBGC is a federal agency that insures private company pension plans. If a PBGC-covered employer cannot pay benefits as promised to its employees, the PBGC makes the payments. The agency insures only defined plans, which means that the benefit is based on a lifetime monthly amount according to a specific formula. Defined contribution plans such as 401(k) and profit-sharing plans are not covered by the PBGC.
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