Skip to content
Share:

How to Find an Old 401(k) and What to Do With It

By: Dayana Yochim

Published: August 29, 2019

How to Find an Old 401(k) and What to Do With It

There are billions of dollars sitting unclaimed in ghosted workplace retirement plans. And some of it might be yours if you’ve ever left a job and forgotten to take your vested retirement savings with you.

It happens. A lot.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reports that from 2004 through 2013, more than 25 million people with money in an employer-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k) left at least one account behind after their last day on the job.

But no matter how long the cobwebs have been forming on your old 401(k), that money is still yours. All you have to do is find it.

Following the money

Employers will try to track down a departed employee who left money behind in an old 401(k), but their efforts are only as good as the information they have on file. Beyond providing 30 to 60 days notice of their intentions, there are no laws that say how hard they have to look or for how long.

If it’s been a while since you’ve heard from your former company, or if you’ve moved or misplaced the notices they sent, there are three main places your money could be:

  1. Right where you left it, in the old account set up by your employer.
  2. In a new account set up by the 401(k) plan administrator.
  3. In the hands of your state’s unclaimed property division.

Here’s how to start your search:

Contact your old employer

Start with your former company’s human resources department or find an old 401(k) account statement and contact the plan administrator, the financial firm that held the account and sent you updates.

You may be allowed to leave your money in your old plan, but you might not want to.

If there was more than $5,000 in your retirement account when you left, there’s a good chance that your money is still in your workplace account. You may be allowed to leave it there for as long as you like until you’re age 70½, when the IRS requires you to start taking distributions, but you might not want to. Here’s how to decide whether to keep your money in an old 401(k).

Plan administrators have more leeway with abandoned amounts up to $5,000. If the balance is $1,000 or less, they can simply cut a check for the total and send it to your last known address, leaving you to deal with any tax consequences. For amounts more than $1,000 up to $5,000, they’re allowed to move funds into an individual retirement account without your consent. These specialty IRAs are set up at a financial institution that has been federally authorized to manage the account.

The good news if a new IRA was opened for the rollover: Your money retains its tax-protected status. The bad: You have to find the new trustee.

Look up your money’s new address

If the old plan administrator cannot tell you where your 401(k) funds went, there are several databases that can assist:

Search unclaimed property databases

If a company terminates its retirement plan, it has more options on what it’s allowed to do with the unclaimed money, no matter what the account balance.

If your account was cashed out, you may owe the IRS.

It might be rolled into an IRA set up on your behalf, deposited at a bank or left with the state’s unclaimed property fund. Hit up missingmoney.com, run in part by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, to do a multistate search of state unclaimed property divisions.

Note that if a plan administrator cashed out and transferred your money to a bank account or the state, a portion of your savings may have been withheld to pay the IRS. That’s because this kind of transfer is considered a distribution (aka cashing out) and is subject to income taxes and penalties. Some 401(k) plan administrators withhold a portion of the balance to cover any potential taxes and send you and the IRS tax form 1099-R to report the income. Others don’t, which could leave you with a surprise IRS IOU to pay.

What to do with it

You might be able to leave your old 401(k) money where it is if it’s in your former employer’s plan. One reason to do so is if you have access to certain mutual funds that charge lower management fees available to institutional clients — like 401(k) plans — that aren’t available to individual investors. But you’re not allowed to contribute to the plan anymore since you no longer work there.

Reasons to move your money to an IRA or to roll it into a current employer’s plan include access to a broader range of investments, such as individual stocks and a wider selection of mutual funds, and more control over account fees.

» MORE: 401(k) Rollovers: A quick start guide

If your money was moved into an IRA on your behalf, you don’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — leave it there. The GAO study of forced-transfer IRAs found that annual fees (up to $115) and low investment returns (0.01% to 2.05% in conservative investments dictated by the Department of Labor regulations) “can steadily decrease a comparatively small stagnant balance.”

Once you find your money, it’s easy to switch brokers and move your investments into a new IRA of your choosing without triggering any taxes.

» MORE: Top-rated IRA account providers

Unless you enjoyed this little treasure hunt, the next time you switch jobs, take your retirement loot with you.

 

This article was written by NerdWallet and was originally published by The Associated Press.

View all posts

Members' Voice Testimonials

USSFCU puts members first and helps people. Compared to U.S. banks, which forget their humble beginnings and often behave like (they are) above the law. Credit unions seem to have maintained their purpose and USSFCU is among the best. I am proud to be a member and grateful for the service provided by USSFCU.

I've been a member for about 31 years now and I've always been able to count on the USSFCU when I've really needed them.

Excellent customer service. Staff are knowledgeable, responsive and able to provide individualized help. I live in another state and am still amazed how easy it is to use USSFCU for all my financial needs. It has always been this way and with technology solutions, it is easier than ever. But it is the personal assistance that really makes the diffe...

Been a member for a very long time. I have always been treated with kindness and expertise. Keep up the good work!

Love the phone calls regarding possible suspicious activity with my account. It's reassuring to know that everything is safe.

I would recommend the USSFCU based on the excellent customer service I have received from the Senate Credit unions I have visited (Eisenhower and GAO).

Accessibility and customer service have been exceptional. I have been a member for almost 40 years and have always been satisfied with the service and professionalism of the staff.

USSFCU cares about those who bank with it and that caring is not lip service but translates into action.

I have been with the credit union for almost 15 years and all in all am extremely pleased with the service I have gotten. Definitely better than any bank.

Very personable, solution based and takes in interest in your situation.

Unfailing service by dedicated staff. I feel that USSFCU has my back. Staff has gone to bat for me whenever needed. I'm not aware on any mistake or inconvenience in my 30 years of membership. Excellent long term leadership, continuity and service by board.

Easy to become a member and superb customer support. I dealt with two different USSFCU representatives and they were fantastic. I was able to reach them immediately or if they were tied up they contacted me as soon as they became available. They helped me open an IRA and answered any and all questions with great attitudes and professionalism. They ...

The credit union provides relatively good services and the security updates to the system are noticeable.

It took a matter of minutes to open the account and purchase a CD. The credit union that I have done business with for about 40 years took more than a week to close a joint account and transfer the funds to a new account when my husband died.

Outstanding online and mobile banking services. Professional, Courteous, knowledgeable responsive staff!

Read More testimonials.
Sorry, content not available.