Although the idea of “forgotten money” may sound strange to some people, the truth is that there is a lot of misplaced 401(k) money floating around America. According to Capitalize, as of 2021, there were over 24 million forgotten 401(k) accounts, with assets totaling $1.35 trillion. In many cases, “lost” 401(k) money is the result of changing jobs, with retirement plan paperwork getting lost in the shuffle. Smaller 401(k) balances are more likely to be forgotten than large ones, but even sizable accounts can sometimes be overlooked, especially when workers have the misguided notion that they aren’t entitled to them if they leave a company. If you feel like you may have misplaced some 401(k) money over the course of your working career – or if you’re now curious to check – here are the places you should look to find it.
Start With Your Former Employer
The best place to track down forgotten 401(k) money is generally your former employer. For starters, your former employer likely had the bulk if not the entirety of your retirement savings, as you likely rolled any prior balances into your then-new employer’s plan. Simply call, message or email your former employer’s Human Resources department and ask if you have any vested balances in any plans that you may have left behind. The HR department should have an accurate record of your available plan assets if any.
Look Up Old 401(k) Statements
Hopefully, you’ve kept any old 401(k) statements you received from any prior employers. Those are the best documents you can have if you’re looking to prove that you left any 401(k) money behind. Not only should your statements list any vested balances, but it should also have contact information that you can use to track them down. Remember that while old 401(k) statements can refresh your memory of any accounts you may have, the information printed on them may not always be accurate. For example, your balances may have grown or fallen significantly since the date of the statement. In the case of old documents, your accounts may no longer exist, as they may have been rolled over or withdrawn any time after the statement was issued.
Check With the Department of Labor
If you’re missing information about your former employers and any potentially lost 401(k) balances, start with the U.S Department of Labor. Every employer with a benefit plan is required to have a Form 5500 on file with the DOL. You can use this annual report to track down contact information for any of your former employers. Another option is to register an account on the DOL’s FreeERISA site, which is a free way to look up information about accounts at former employers.
Visit Unclaimed Assets Web Sites
Another resource for finding any type of “lost money” in general is an unclaimed asset website. Generally run by individual states or federal agencies, these sites list money that individuals may claim from a variety of locations from state taxing authorities to lottery divisions. It’s possible that some or all of your 401(k) accounts may appear on these sites, but in general, they are far less accurate and reliable than the records your old employers will have. For example, sites may have information that was accurate at one time but is now woefully out-of-date, or they may not have access to all of the funds that you have outstanding. Follow up any leads you get from these types of sites, but don’t pin your hopes on finding all or even any of your lost 401(k) funds this way.
The Bottom Line
If you’re worried you might be missing out on some of your 401(k) money, don’t fret. As long as you were vested in the funds when you left your employer, you’re still legally entitled to that money, and there are many sources you can use to help find it. You might have to put in some leg work to track all of it down – and you’ll still need to process some paperwork in order to receive it – but you don’t have to worry about actually “losing” it.
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