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How to Find an Old 401k Account from a Previous Employer

If at one point, you quit a job, got fired, or were let go due to your company shutting down, you may have left behind earned funds invested in a 401(k)-retirement account.

Even if the balance of your investment account from your old job is low, you should not just let this money go, as it is your money, that you worked for and earned.

Don't panic.

Fortunately for all of us who have ever had money taken out of our paycheck for a 401(k) contribution, how our funds are handled is protected by the government.

Which means, even if a decade goes by, you still may be able to claim your long left behind 401(k) money.

If the money is rolled over to a default IRA account, it is to your advantage to recover your money as soon as possible, to avoid your account balance dwindling due to monthly service fees

In most states, lost or abandoned money is turned over to the state’s unclaimed property fund.

The funds are to protect consumers by ensuring money can be returned to them, rather than remain with companies or institutions.

Retirement Funds Are Different

They are not turned over to the state, which means, it’s possible that nothing will happen to your money until something happens with your company (that is, it is sold, goes out of business, or shuts down its 401(k)). 

A common scenario is when you leave a company and move, perhaps you even change your email address.

Perhaps months or even years have gone by, or you’ve moved to the other side of the country. Then something happens with your employer and they need to contact you for instructions of what to do with your account.

Make Sure You Actually Contributed

Before you go through the hassle and process of calling the HR department at your old employer, or searching through databases, it’s a good idea to verify that you contributed to the plan.

If you are unsure if you contributed to a 401(k) plan, you can check your previous year tax return and old W-2. Any contribution will be in Box 12 of the W-2.

ERISA, or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, sets minimum standards for retirement plans, and protects retirement savings from abuse or mismanagement.

Among other things, employees are required to make annual reports

How Does Money Get Left Behind?

Very few people stay at one employer the entire length of their career.

But unlike your bank account which you may have from job to job, a 401(k) account is linked to your employer. It is up to you to do something about it.

When you leave your employer, the money may stay in the account for an indefinite amount of time.

However, if the company closes the 401(k) plan, files for bankruptcy, goes out of business or is acquired by another company, you may be forced to decide, within a short period of time.

It’s possible that years will go by after you parted ways with your old job, and then you’ll get a letter notifying you that you need to move your 401(k) account, or take a (taxable) distribution.

If this happens, you’re much better off “rolling” the money into an IRA account, or transferring the money into your current company’s 401(k) plan.

What is a 401(k) Account?

A 401(k) plan, named for the section of tax code that governs it, is a retirement plan sponsored by an employer, allowing employees to save a portion of their paycheck for retirement.

The advantage to employees of saving with a 401(k) plan is they are able to save funds they have earned, before taxes are deducted from a paycheck.

Many employers offer a “company match” meaning whatever the employee contributes, the company matches.

Although 401(k) plans were originally born as a supplement to pension plans, they are now often the sole retirement plans offered at companies.

What If Your Employer Goes Out of Business?

Under federal law, your employer must keep your 401(k) funds separate from their business assets.

This means that even if your employer abruptly shuts their doors overnight, your money is protected. It cannot be used to pay off your company’s loans, cover employee payroll, or for any other purpose.

If your company shut down abruptly, it is possible that a portion of money will be at risk. If your money has been withheld, but has not yet been sent to the 401(k) plan to be invested, the company could in theory, access those funds.

Tracking Down Missing Mystery Money

So, what happened to your big pot of gold?

Due to government oversight and restrictions for retirement plan accounts, only so many things could have happened.

1. Start with Your Old Employer

The easiest way to recover funds left behind is to contact your employer.

As long as the company is still in business, call the HR department and ask to have them verify your participation in the 401(k) plan.

2. Contact the 401(k) Plan Administrator

If your employer is no longer around, try getting in touch with the plan administrator, which may be listed on an old statement.

If you’re unable to find an old statement, you still may be able to find the administrator by searching for the retirement plan’s tax return, known as Form 5500.

You can find a 5500s by the searching the name of your former employer at www.efast.dol.gov.

If you locate a Form 5500 for an old plan, it should have the contact information on it.

3. Check the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits

The National Registry is a nationwide, secure database listing of retirement plan account balances that have been left unclaimed by former participants of retirement plans.

It is essentially a search engine of lost 401(k) plans.

The only thing you need to search the database is your social security number. No additional information is needed, and there is no cost to search the database.

4. Determine if Your 401(k) Account was Rolled Over to a “Default IRA” or “Missing Participant IRA”

One possibility is your employer rolled the funds over into a “Default” IRA.

If your employer tried to contact you for instructions as to what to do with your account balance, and you fail to respond, you may be deemed a non-responsive participant.

If they are unable to locate you altogether, you may be deemed a Missing Participant.

In either scenario, if the plan is being terminated, your employer may have put the funds in a Missing Participant Auto Rollover IRA.

This is an IRA account set up on your behalf to preserve your retirement assets until they are claimed by you or your beneficiaries under Department of Labor regulations.

To qualify for a Missing Participant or Default IRA, the account balance must be greater than $100 but less than $5,000 unless the funds are coming from a terminated plan, then the $5,000 ceiling is waived.

Finding a Missing Participant IRA

If your money has been transferred to a Missing Participant IRA, you should be able to find it by searching the FreeERISA website.

This search is slightly more time consuming than the national registry. Registration is required to search the database, which contains 2.6 million ERISA form 5500s, covering 1.3 million plans and 1 million plan sponsors.

If you know your money has been transferred to one of these default accounts, you should get it out into a standard IRA account.

Under Department of Labor regulations, Automatic Rollover and Missing Participant IRAs must meet certain conditions for plan fiduciaries to be deemed to meet their obligations to the participant under Section 404(a) of ERISA.

Typically, these accounts must be interest-bearing, bear a reasonable rate of return, and be FDIC insured.

Here's the bad part:

The balance of your account may slowly dwindle, due to monthly fees.

All fees, whether setup or monthly administration fees, are paid exclusively by you (the Participant) unless your Employer/Plan Sponsor elects to pay some or all of the fees. More than likely, your employer will not elect to pay your fees.

Under federal law, if a Participant shows up to claim their benefits within 60 days of the date of establishing the IRA account, all set-up charges will be waived.

If you get a notification that your funds are being put in an IRA account, consider transferring the funds prior to 60 days of the date of the account being established, or as soon as possible.

5. Search the Abandoned Plan Database

If you can’t find your lost money by contacting your old employer, searching the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, or the FreeERISA website, you have one last place to check, the Abandoned Plan Database offered by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Searching is simple, you can search their database by Plan Name or Employer name, and locate the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for directing the shutdown of the plan.

Plan for Your Retirement Over Your Career

Remember that retirement planning is not a singular event, but rather something you do over the course of your career.

Keep this mindset and continually review your retirement planning progress and account balances. If you haven’t started to save for retirement, it’s never too late.

Talk to your HR department about retirement planning options, or open up an IRA, or even basic savings account to get started putting money aside for your future.