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10 Ways to Find Your Old 401(k)


Losing money to the investment markets is frustrating.  Losing money by not knowing where funds are that you or a family member saved in a 401(k) plan has to be corrected.  Savings are hard enough to accumulate you should be able to keep everything for which your family worked.  The problem is with job changes, household moves, and failing companies it might be easier than you think to lose track of an asset.  Here are ten options to consider if you find out there’s an asset you feel is rightfully yours. 

1.      Call The Custodian – The custodian is the first place to contact because the custodian is responsible for tracking and reporting on your money.  These are the companies that send you your quarterly or monthly statement. If you have a statement of the account in question this will probably be an easy endeavor, although calling these custodians can be tricky. Once you have access to a person, you can direct them to send the funds where you would like. Typically they will either have a form for the request or they may allow you to direct it right over the phone.

2.      Call The Employer – If a statement isn’t available, and the custodian that serviced the plan isn’t readily known, then the next step is to contact the employer.  Sometimes this causes hesitation if there wasn’t an amicable split from the company or they may have gone out of business or may have been bought out.  If the company is still operating do reach out because your money is yours they can’t take it away from you. Taking a moment to direct you where you need to go shouldn’t be a problem.  If the company isn’t around because they merged into a new company that new organization would have a legal requirement to maintain the records.  If the former company isn’t in business any longer try reaching out to any friends or co-workers you had when you worked there together.  Even if they don’t know where your funds are located, they would have probably had funds at the same location. Perhaps they can look up the phone number of their contact.

3.      Look Through Cashed Checks – Beyond the calls above, the next step that should be taken is to see if it can be verified that the funds haven’t already come out of the plan as a distribution.  After all, if the funds are lost that assumes statements are not arriving each quarter.  If statements aren’t arriving that either means they are turned off resulting in an email over the same frequency, or it means the account is closed out.  It’s possible the account was closed out on purpose and the family or beneficiaries just don’t have records that it was.  It’s also possible the plan forced out the funds in the form of a check which they are able to do without authorization or a signature if the balance is below $5,000.  Sometimes instead of doing this they will automatically roll over the funds to an IRA instead so the money is out of the plan but in this case statements should keep coming.  So if the funds were forced out a check should have been sent so you can contact your bank, or the bank you used in the past and see if a check came over the last few years.  If there isn’t a check in the transaction history, but you also are not receiving statements, it’s possible a check was sent but not cashed.  In this case you are back to contacting the custodian. But if it is the case then the custodian can issue another one. 

4.      Keep an Eye on the Mail – If a check hasn’t been cashed but statements are also not arriving it makes things a little more difficult.  One aspect of retirement plans is there are a lot of rules regarding required mailings.  Plans have to send out an annual mailing that offers plan related information, sometimes called a 404a.  Or there might be some sort of a newsletter from the custodian that doesn’t specifically outline the assets but states that the newsletter is arriving because you or someone in the household is a participant. 

5.      Call Broker or TPA – Most 401(k) plans will have a broker of record which is an individual responsible for advising the plan on regulations and helping to create the investment inventory.  The term TPA stands for third party administrator and 401(k) plans need these types of companies to also make sure they are following the rules.  The problem with this step as a possible solution is these contacts are really for the needs of the employer rather than individual participants although the good ones help participants when they need something.  Also the contact information of these two entities isn’t readily available as the TPA typically is not listed on client statements, and the broker may be but if a statement isn’t available then you are out of luck here.  One possible option is to Google terms like largest third party administrators for your area and call the companies that come up. If they are the largest, and you or the owner worked for a larger than average employer perhaps you get lucky and find the TPA that serviced the plan.

6.      Call The Largest Custodians – Similar to the strategy above the money would have typically been held at a recognizable custodian.  It is just a matter of which one.  So if all else fails you can contact the largest custodians, also called record keepers or vendors or investment providers, and see if anything comes up under the Social Security number of the owner.  The largest 10 record keepers by number of participants are Fidelity, CitiStreet, Hewitt Associates, Great West, TIAA-CREF, Vanguard, Principal, Merrill Lynch, ING and Nationwide.  A couple other options might be T. Rowe Price, Wachovia, Prudential, and ADP as a nationwide payroll processor option.  It’s a lot of work to round up the phone numbers for all of these companies and a lot of hold time, but if it leads you to money than it’s worth it. 

7.      Look up the Plan on FreeErisa – ERISA is the law Congress passed that is the framework under retirement plans operate today.  It’s an acronym for Employee Retirement Income Security Act.  ERISA didn’t also create a national database of retirement plans however it created some rules that forces information about larger plans to be publicly available.  So other companies have made businesses out of organizing this information and selling it or offering it to the public.  www.Freeerisa.com & www.Brightscope.com are two examples of this service, with the latter being where this article appears.  These sites are not the custodian and won’t offer a person to talk to regarding an individual’s balance, but they may have vendor or contact information for the plan that wasn’t available before looking. 

8.      Check with the Department of Labor - Although the federal government doesn’t maintain an active list of all retirement plans, leaving that to the public marketplace, the Department of Labor does maintain a database of abandoned plans.  If you are looking for your own assets on this or that of a family member that implies that not only have you lost track of an asset but the plan itself has also stopped being maintained.  Regardless try entering what you know about the company and plan and see if it leads you anywhere. http://askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/ 

9.      Hire a Third Party – Similar to the database above private companies also try to maintain a database of missing information and help people locate assets.  Here is an example of such a service.  As with all private businesses be thorough in your research to make sure you are working with a reputable company https://www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com/

10.  Contact the State of Residence – Just like the Department of Labor, each state tries to maintain a database of lost assets as well.  Depending on the state of residence or state of employment perhaps a lead is possible by entering what you know here as well.  http://www.missingmoney.com/ or http://www.unclaimed.org/

One last thing to keep in mind that can be discouraging is that if you do manage to find some retirement plan assets, then you have to access those funds.  This means filling out forms or providing instruction in some form to either rollover the money to an IRA or cashing it in as a taxable distribution.  This presents two additional opportunities for at least some of the money you found to be taken away. When you request the distribution the plan will determine whether the owner is fully vested in the balance in the account.  If the employee didn’t work for the company the entire period necessary to vest then contributions would have gone in, and possibly grown, but would be removed before the distribution is processed.  Secondly if you are requesting to cash out the funds then taxes may be required to be withheld and typically are required in the amount of 20% for federal income taxes. 


With all of that said good luck and hopefully additional savings can be found and put to work to help you toward your financial goals. If there are assets out there, you earned them.  

Brian offers Securities through Triad Advisors, Member FINRA / SIPC.  Advisory Services offered through Planning Solutions Group, LLC.  Planning Solutions Group, LLC is not affiliated with Triad Advisors. PSG Clarity is a division of Planning Solutions Group, LLC



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