How can I find my pension plan from a previous employer? 

5 mins readLast updated December 1, 2023by Kate Morgan

The long road to retirement may see you work for multiple employers, and pay into multiple pension plans or 401(k)s. But as you edge closer to finishing work, you’ll want the peace of mind that comes with knowing you have access to them all.

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Protecting your pension is protecting your future. Despite this, people often lose track of their pension arrangements. According to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), there are currently more than 80,000 Americans across the country who have not claimed their earned defined benefit pension. 

The good news is that even if you haven’t kept track of your pension plans, the money isn’t lost. The hours you may have to put into tracking them down will seem well worth it for the reward of a more comfortable retirement

Finding your pension plan or 401(k): a step-by-step guide

Leaving an old job comes with lots of administrative responsibilities, so you may not have kept track of all the pension plans or 401(k)s you might have been paying into. To track them down, we have put together a handy guide with steps to take that will help you find any plans from a previous employer, and shore up your retirement fund.  

Get in touch with former employers

Whether you’re looking to track down a pension plan or 401(k), your first port of call should be to contact your old employers. Before doing so, you should pull together as many details about your time under their employment as you can find. From your start and end date to your Social Security number, the more information you can provide, the easier it’ll be for them to find your details and give you the information you need. You should also have any documentation from your employer that demonstrates your rights to retirement benefits. Your most likely source of success in tracking down the details you need is the company’s HR department, as this will generally be where your pension plan or 401(k)s will have been arranged.  

If a company you work for no longer exists, don’t panic. Check out any news online about corporate bankruptcies and mergers, since a new company may have inherited your old employer’s legal obligation to pay out retirement benefits. Alternatively, your pension plan assets may have been handed to an insurance company, which will have the obligation to pay out your benefits.

Review the paperwork

Paperwork for pension plans and 401(k)s can look very different, but the sentiment is the same: gather up all of the documents you have and undertake a comprehensive review.  

For pension plans, you may find a benefit statement or exit letter from your previous employer, which will help you prove your eligibility for payments. Items such as pay stubs or W-2 forms will also serve as evidence for your start and end dates at a company, and will often contain the name of your pension plan.  

W-2 forms can also help you in your search for any lost 401(k)s. In any given year, you can check if you made any 401(k) contributions on box 12 of your W-2 tax form. But further review of these documents will also provide key details about your former employment, and should include a description of the plan.  

Search in the right places

Again, where your retirement benefits from a previous employer may be could depend on whether it is a pension plan or a 401(k), since there are different places to look for each.  

If you’re searching for a pension plan, you can turn to the PBGC’s database. The PBGC insures pension plans in the private sector and pays out benefits if the plan fails. It holds a database of more than 80,000 people who are eligible for pension payments but couldn’t be located either by the PBGC itself, or the person’s former employee.  

The PBGC’s database now also covers 401(k) plans. However, you can also undertake a search on the Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database. Alternatively, you can use an online tool offered by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators that allows you to search for any unclaimed assets by state, or use to conduct a search across multiple states.  

What happens if I find a missing pension plan or 401(k)?

If you do uncover a missing pension plan or 401(k), then you’ll want to lay claim to it as soon as possible. Doing so for a pension plan will involve contacting the PBGC directly to prove your identity, after which you can claim it and start drawing on the benefits once you are of retirement age. It may be worth rolling an uncovered 401(k) into your current retirement savings account, whether that’s another 401(k) or an IRA. If it’s in one place, you’re putting a process in place to keep track of your investments — and can review how it squares up to your retirement planning.  

Taking steps to ensure a comfortable retirement will have huge benefits when the time comes to finish work. Unbiased can help you find your perfect financial advisor, who will offer their support and expertise with your retirement goals in mind.  

Content writer

Kate Morgan

Kate has written for leading publications and blue chip companies over the last 20 years.

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