Three Steps to Find a Missing 401(k) ($ ?s)

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Money Questions

Q: I’ve left a few jobs where I had signed up for a 401(k) and never knew until now that I needed to cash them out or transfer them. So here I am years later, and I cannot locate any information that I ever had one. How do I find my money? They took it out of my checks!

Sincerely, Lost My 401(k)

$ ?s answered by Matthew Illian, CFP®

Dear Lost My 401(k),

Job transition can be a chaotic time. So a lot of people forget to transfer their retirement plan benefits as they clear their desk. If you are one of the tens of thousands of employees who neglected to take retirement funds along when moving to a new company, there are a few things that you can do to get the money back.

In all cases this retirement plan money is a protected benefit, and is held in your name by your ex-employer or the government until you claim your funds.

If your 401(k) account was less than $5,000 at the time you left your previous employer, your previous employer probably cashed out your account and mailed a check to you directly. If that happened, you have 60 days to roll this money into an individual retirement an IRA to avoid tax penalties. You can confirm this by reviewing your tax return from the year you left the company. A 1099 tax form is generated to show that money was distributed from a retirement account and should be stored with a copy of your tax return.

If you did not cash out the accounts and you don’t have any statements listing the custodian of your accounts, the next best method for locating an old 401(k) is to simply contact your old employer. Ask to speak with the benefits office or the human resources department, and be sure to have your employment dates handy. The benefits office should be able to give you the necessary contact information to track down your missing account.

What if your old company no longer exists due to a merger, bankruptcy, or relocation? Even in these instances, federal law – namely, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) protects your vested money. It is your property, not the property of the employer.

You can check with The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits to see if your former employer has listed you as a missing participant. The registry offers a free search tool designed to help match employers with abandoned or forgotten employee retirement account balances with former employees.

If this path proves a dead end, the last option is to perform a search of the retirement plan’s tax return. All company plans are required to file a Form 5500 with the Department of Labor each year. On the 5500, you can find the name and address of the most recent plan administrator. You also will get some history if the plan was discontinued.

Do it right next time you change jobs. Whenever you leave an employer, move your money to an IRA or Roth IRA immediately. You do not want to roll this money into your next 401(k) plan because it typically offers less flexibility than the IRA.

The only exception to this rule is if your funds are invested in a pension system and the present value of future monthly benefits outweigh the lump-sum payout.

Go get that money!

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Former Contributor

Matthew Illian was a Wealth Manager at Marotta Wealth Management from 2007 to 2016. He specialized in small business consulting, college planning, and retirement plans.