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What happens with my mother-in-law's 401k if she passes away and we can't find paperwork?

My mother-in-law has passed away and she should still have a 401k somewhere from a previous employer. How do we find this information?

Jan 10, 2015 by Roxie from Omaha, NE in  |  Flag
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John Essigman Level 17

Hi Roxie,

Very sorry about the loss of your mother-in-law.

Generally a 401(k) would pass to the surviving spouse unless the spouse signed-off on a different beneficiary. Most custodians and life insurance companies will not speak with you or anyone else other than the beneficiary or the executor. If there are beneficiaries listed on the account they will not tell you who they are as this is private and confidential information.

If there are no beneficiaries listed then funds pass per the Last Will and Testament or as dictated by state law if she passed without a will.

Have the executor send them a copy of the death certificate and probate documents. The custodian will then send you the forms needed to process a distribution. Anyone who receives a distribution should carefully consider their options as a traditional 401(k) is considered taxable income to the recipient. Taking a large distribution all at once may incur significant tax exposure.

Highly recommend that you consult with a fee-only advisor and an attorney to help you through this process.


Comment   |  Flag   |  Jan 11, 2015 from Cleveland, GA

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I am sorry about your loss. I'm sure this is a difficult time for you and your family.

Brightscope is a good place to start when looking for an old 401k plan. At the home page, you can enter the name of companies your mother-in-law worked for to find information about their retirement plans. Oftentimes, the plan administrator's contact information is provided as well. The next step is to contact the plan administrator to obtain information about claiming any balances she had at the time of her passing. Keep in mind though, they may not provide you with any information if you are not the named beneficiary or executor of her estate.

Good luck.

Kris d'Esterhazy http://www.WealthGuards.com

Comment   |  Flag   |  Jan 12, 2015 from Jacksonville, FL

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First, I'm sorry to hear of your loss. As for your question, have one of her children reach out to the claims department of the 401k custodian. They will process a claim and advise to how the beneficiaries are designated on the account. The beneficiary designations will dictate the next process. If children are listed individually, they will separately contact the 401k custodian to convert the account to a non-spousal IRA per their percentage of the account. If there is no beneficiary listed, there could be some court/probate challenges to properly identify the disposition of the assets. I hope it is a smooth process for you and your family!

Comment   |  Flag   |  Jan 10, 2015 from Ventura, CA

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