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Retirement: Finding Your Lost Money

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No one wants to lose money, particularly for retirement. But it happens;  people lose track of, or don’t know they have, retirement accounts. 

By Sarah Skidmore Sell 

No one wants to lose money, particularly for retirement. But it happens — people lose track of, or don’t know they have, retirement accounts.

It’s surprisingly easy to do. People switch jobs, move, change names and the company or plan provider loses track of them. Or an employee can’t keep track after a company is sold or a plan is terminated. Some people don’t even know they were eligible for a pension, didn’t realize they were vested or were unaware they were automatically enrolled in a 401(k).

While an employer should inform employees of their options when leaving, employees sometimes forget to complete the paperwork, said Thomas Nee, co-founder of Compass Point Retirement Planning. There is also little requirement or incentive for companies or plan providers to find beneficiaries.

There’s no exact measure of how many unclaimed benefits are out there. But a report released last year by the Government Accountability Office states that between 2004 and 2013 more than 25 million people left at least one retirement plan behind when they left a job.

Here are some tips on tracking down lost benefits:

Check Your Paperwork

If you have paperwork on an old pension, 401(k) or other retirement plan, this is a good place to start. Contact the company that manages the plan and go from there.

In some cases, you may want to grab old taxes, W-2s or other employment-related documents while you’re digging through the paperwork. This documentation can help if the process proves difficult. In some cases, the hunt to find and claim benefits can become very complex and take years, particularly if a company has been sold more than once over the years, said Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center.

Contact Your Old Employer

The next step should be contacting your old employer to request information about what retirement benefits you’re due. If you cannot find them, search the Department of Labor’s website of Form 5500 filings to find out if they are still in business. This form should have contact information for the plan.

Get Help

There are a bevy of databases and organizations that can help you find benefits and provide direction:

✔️ The Department of Labor’s Employee Benefit Security Administration (EBSA) provides help over the phone and online, including a searchable database for abandoned plans: www.askebsa.dol.gov

✔️ The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is a federal agency in charge of insuring private-sector pension benefits. If the plan is in trouble, the PBGC steps in. The PBGC said there are more than 80,000 people who earned a pension who haven’t yet claimed it. Those unclaimed benefits total over $400 million dollars, with individual benefits ranging from twelve cents to almost $1 million. The agency provides information over the phone and online, including a searchable database: www.pbgc.gov

✔️ State Unclaimed Property: In some cases, the money is handed over to a state’s unclaimed property division. Each state maintains its own database but the website missingmoney.com, created by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, can also provide information about each state’s programs.

✔️ Social Security Administration: The SSA will provide a notice alerting you to potential benefits when you are ready to claim Social Security, but the notice does not guarantee those funds are still there.

✔️ The U.S. Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program provides free legal assistance to those experiencing a problem with their pension, profit sharing or retirement savings plans. It currently serves 30 states. If your state isn’t covered, check out pensionhelp.org, a website of the nonprofit Pension Rights Center. It helps connect people with counseling projects, government agencies, and legal service providers that offer free information and assistance.

Small Retirement Balances

If a 401(k) has less than $5,000 in it, federal law allows those balances to be moved to an IRA without the beneficiaries’ consent. These can be hard to find, but try the EBSA’s abandoned plan search, a state’s unclaimed property site or contact the company that used to manage those benefits to find out where they’ve been sent. — AP

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