How to find your lost retirement benefits

Planning young: a retirement roadmap
Planning young: a retirement roadmap

If you've worked for more than one employer in your lifetime, you may have lost or forgotten retirement benefits just waiting for you to track them down.

Here's how to find and claim those long-lost accounts.

Lost 401(k)s

You may have contributed to a 401(k) for a former employer without even realizing it. Some employers will automatically enroll you in their 401(k) plans at a low contribution level, and if you didn't fill out the paperwork to decline auto-enrollment, you could have built up a 401(k) balance without your knowledge.

The easiest way to find an old 401(k) is to contact the HR departments of your former employers and ask whether you have an open balance in a 401(k) with them. If you don't have contact information for an old employer, or if the company has gone out of business, try the Department of Labor's Form 5500 search. Form 5500 is a tax form that 401(k) plan administrators are generally required to file annually, so if you can track down your plan's Form 5500, you'll find the plan administrator's contact information and can reach out to them. Note that this search only goes back to 2009; if the 401(k) plan you participated in ceased operation before then, you won't find it here.

Another option is to search the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. This is a free service to match up former employees with their unclaimed retirement benefits. You'll need to provide your Social Security number in order to perform the search. If you find a match, the registry will provide contact information for your former employer so that you can claim your account.

Lost pensions

If you are fortunate enough to be eligible for a pension from a former employer, you could have guaranteed retirement income that will last as long as you do. Most employers require you to work for the company for a minimum amount of time (often five years) in order to vest in the pension, meaning that you won't qualify for benefits unless you worked there at least that long.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is a federal government agency that maintains and protects pensions. It's funded through insurance premiums paid by participating employers. If you worked for a company that offered a pension, even if the company is no more, the pension may still exist thanks to the PBGC.

You can search the PBGC website for an unclaimed pension using either your own name or a former employer's name. Failed pension plans that were rescued by the PBGC will be listed in the Trusteed Pension Plans search by company name.

What to do next

If your searches uncover an old 401(k) account in your name, your best bet is to roll the money in that account over to your current retirement savings account, be it another 401(k) or an IRA. Keeping all your retirement savings in one place helps you to keep track of how your investments are doing and whether or not you're saving enough to meet your retirement goals.

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To claim an old pension, you'll need to contact the PBGC and prove your identity. After successfully claiming your pension, you'll be able to start drawing on the benefits once you hit retirement age. If your time with the employer providing the pension was brief, you probably won't get much -- but hey, there's no point in missing out on free money.

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