Where are my savings? How to find old 401(k) accounts
The way we approach the working world, and our careers are evolving. Nowadays, people tend to have worked in multiple companies before retiring. For your retirement savings, this means they can be in a few different places.
While this is not the case for everyone, many people have worked in the same company since graduation. But for those who have worked in various places, their savings could be fairly dispersed.
To find them all, you need to do some digging.
Why should I find my old retirement accounts?
According to Capitalize, a financial services company specializing in 401(k)s, as of May 2023, there are an estimated 29.2 million left behind or forgotten 401(k) accounts. These accounts amount to approximately $1.65 trillion in assets.
If you have accounts you’ve left behind or forgotten about, you could be in for a windfall.
The plus side is, as these accounts typically remain invested, they can add up to a welcome retirement boost. Again, according to Capitalize, the average forgotten 401(k) account balance is $55,400. This is a tidy sum to add to your retirement funds.
On the flip side, if you don’t realize you have money lying in wait, you could miss out on tens of thousands of dollars in retirement savings. This could mean the difference between taking that long-awaited dream vacation and spending another summer sitting at home.
While finding missing and old accounts can be a drawn-out and tedious process, it could be worth it.
How do I find old 401(k) accounts?
When looking for your old 401(k) accounts, there are several things you can do to find your missing money:
1. Review your statement and documents
If you had a 401(k) account with an old employer, you’ve likely received physical or electronic statements or documentation. These statements will have your account information and, in most cases, who you should contact to access your accounts. Finding these documents will make it easier to access your accounts.
2. Contact your former employer
Your former employers are the best place to start.
If you contact their HR department, they will likely have a record of your 401(k) and be able to provide you with information on how to gain access.
It’s important to note if you have less than $1,000 in your account when you leave the company, they can cash out your account and send you a check for the balance.
In this case, dealing with the tax implications is up to you. If the balance is between $1,000 and $5,000, they can move the money into an IRA account without your consent. For accounts over $5,000, they’ve likely stayed where you left them.
3. Search databases
If your employer is proving unsuccessful, or they have ceased trading and passed your account to another entity, there are several databases you can search through to find your money.
Department of Labor – you can search the department’s “abandoned plan database” to find your plan using your name and employer information. Another method through the Department of Labor is locating your old company’s Form 5500, which details all employee benefit plans. From here, you can find the contact information and plan administrator.
National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits – this provides details of account balances unclaimed by former retirement plan participants.
National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) or their partner MissingMoney – you can search either database for unclaimed property, including retirement savings.
How do I find old IRA accounts?
If it is an IRA account that you’re looking for, the steps are similar:
Review the documentation – similar to a 401(k) search, the best first step is to review your statements and documentation. Search your email inbox, check your files, and revisit old tax returns. From here, you should be able to find the custodian of your IRA account, who you can contact directly.
Contact IRA providers – you can open an IRA with brokerages, banks, and robo-advisors. If you’re stuck, you can start contacting some well-known providers and simply ask if you have an account with them.
Check with your state – if a financial account becomes dormant for an extended period, the institution holding the accounts must notify the state. The state then claims and becomes the account owner. This is known as escheatment. IRAs cannot become dormant until the account owner reaches the age to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs). The rules surrounding dormancy and escheatment differ from state to state.
How to find your pension
Across the US, it’s estimated that 80,000 people have an unclaimed defined benefit pension.
If you’re one of them, as well as contacting old employers, financial and insurance companies, and going through all paperwork, you can also:
Get in touch with the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation – this is a federal agency that insures private-sector traditional pension plans and pays out benefits up to certain limits if the plan fails.
Contact financial and insurance companies – if your pension has been turned over to a financial company, they will hold the money until you are located. If an insurance company now has your pension, they are legally obligated to pay out an annuity to you once you retire per the terms of your plan.
Check your state’s government website – this only applies if you were a state or local government employee.
What should you do when you find your old accounts?
Once you’ve found your retirement accounts, the next step is figuring out what you will do with them.
One option is to leave it alone. If your old 401(k) is housed within your former employer’s plan, you may benefit from lower fees. As you no longer work there, it’s unlikely you’ll still be able to contribute to the plan, but you will now know where it is and can access it once retirement comes around.
Another more common option is to roll over your accounts.
This can be to a specified 401(k) or an IRA. This may give you better investment options and more control over admin and management fees – you will only pay one instead of multiple.
It also lets you keep your accounts in one place – you don’t have to remember logins and locations for multiple savings pots. Also, with an IRA rollover, your money is no longer attached to a specific employer, reducing the likelihood of you misplacing it again.
However, before you start moving your money around, it is important to note that the amount rolled over is taxable. If you’re moving money from a 401(k) to a Roth IRA, you will have to pay tax. Money rolled into a Roth IRA account must also be held within the account for five or more years before it is withdrawn to avoid a penalty.
Your financial advisor can help with this and advise you on managing your various accounts.
For more information about how to roll over your 401(k) to an IRA, click here.
The bottom line
To avoid some of this tedious and time-consuming work, consolidating your accounts should be high on your priority list when you leave a job.
Thankfully, this work is set to become easier.
As part of President Biden’s 2023 spending bill, the SECURE 2.0 Act directs the U.S. Department of Labor to establish a lost-and-found database by the end of 2024.
This will help workers find contact information for past accounts. The law also allows employee benefits to be automatically transferred between companies when they start a new job.
If you need help, it's important to seek expert advice. A good place to start is Unbiased. Here you can get matched with an independent SEC-regulated financial advisor who can ensure you’re getting the most out of your current plan and are on course to achieving your retirement goals.
Senior Content Writer
Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.