How to Track Down a Lost 401(k) Retirement Account

About 26% of Americans wait until they’re in their 30s to start saving for retirement, and 15% wait until their 40s to start. That decision to start taking retirement seriously is an important one, but it often happens later in life.

At the same time, the average American holds more than 12 different jobs through their working life, with many of those jobs happening during their 20s. Some of those jobs often feature a retirement plan to which there may have been contributions by the employer or employee before the employee moves to a new position.

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What does that add up to? Someone wakes up in their late 30s or early 40s, decides it’s time to start saving for retirement, but then wonders about a memory of some retirement account at a job they had 10 years ago. What’s the next step for finding a missing 401(k)?

In this article

    How would you lose a 401(k) account?

    A 401(k) or other workplace retirement account is lost when the company that manages the account loses contact with the previous employee. The last known address of that employee becomes outdated and, with no additional way to contact that employee, the account becomes lost.

    [ More: The Complete Beginner’s Guide to 401(k) Plans ]

    In this situation, a number of things can happen. In many cases, accounts with significant balances are left untouched and grow in value quietly. In other cases, the accounts may become liquidated with the assets turned over to the state. The exact process depends on the balance of the accounts, specific laws relating to the type of retirement account and the exact agreement between the previous employer and the administrators of the retirement plan.

    So, what can you do if you suspect you may have a lost account out there?

    How to find an old 401(k) account

    Contact your previous employer

    The first step to take to find a missing retirement account is to contact your previous employer if it is still in business. Find out which investment firm the plan administrator was at that time, and then contact that administrator.

    This seems easy, but it can be more difficult than you expect, particularly if your previous employer has merged with another business or, even worse, it’s out of business. The same issue can apply with the plan administrator — it may have merged with another investment firm as well.

    Tracing these changes can take some time and may lead to a defunct organization. In that situation, you can attempt to contact old coworkers to simply ask if they have information on who the plan administrator was during your time there.

    Use a lost or abandoned plan database

    If you’re unable to find the current administrator of your old retirement account, your next step would be to search through public lost or abandoned plan databases. These databases include plans in which your previous employer has abandoned an earlier retirement plan or a plan administrator is no longer able to locate an individual beneficiary. Here are some tools you can use to help you find such plans.

    Look for unclaimed funds

    In some situations, your old retirement plan may have been closed due to having a small balance. To find small missing retirement accounts, potentially from employers with whom you were only employed for a short while and did not accumulate significant contributions, search the various unclaimed funds services from USA.gov. Each state has its own unclaimed funds site as well.

    [ More: Is 65 Still a Good Retirement Age? ]

    What you should do when you find an old retirement account

    If you find your old retirement account in the form of unclaimed funds, you’ll simply receive a check once you fill out the proper paperwork. You’ll just want to make sure that any income taxes are covered on that money.

    What if you find an intact retirement plan? There are a few things you should do.

    1. Update contact information. First, contact the current administrator of that plan and ensure that they have your updated contact information. You’ll want to do this so that they can contact you in the future and begin sending you statements for this plan.
    2. Keep records. Going forward, you will want to keep records of all such plans that are still active, so that you can contact them with address and phone number changes. Signing up for an online account with that plan administrator is a very good move, as it makes such moves easier.
    3. Roll it into another retirement plan. Another good option is to simply roll this newly recovered retirement plan into another retirement plan. Depending on the exact situation, this may end up creating a taxable situation for you. You will want to start by contacting the administrators of the plan you want to roll the old funds into and ask for their guidance in making this happen.

    [ See: Inflation Affects Your Retirement — Here’s How ]

    Why do this? The fewer retirement accounts you have, the easier it is to keep track of all of your retirement funds. It’s also easier to manage how all of your retirement money is invested, so you don’t have to split up investments across accounts. Plus, in some situations, more recent accounts may provide more or better investment options. Some retirement plans have lots of fees and expenses, so if your old plan isn’t earning enough for you, roll it over.

    How to avoid losing a 401(k) account

    How can a person avoid running into this problem in the future? There are a few simple steps you can follow with your 401(k) plan when you change jobs.

    The easiest step is to simply keep good records. Whenever you begin receiving retirement benefits, keep track of those benefits in a place where you’re sure you’ll be able to find it in the future. After you leave employment, make sure that you have a list of places to contact if you move in the future and include your plan on that list. Signing up for an online account with your plan will make this much easier going forward.

    Another option is to simply roll any plans over into a new plan once you leave employment. If you get a job with a new employer with a new retirement plan, roll the old plan over to this new one. If you don’t, roll the old plan over into a traditional or Roth IRA.

    We welcome your feedback on this article. Contact us at inquiries@thesimpledollar.com with comments or questions.

    Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

    Reviewed by

    • Courtney Mihocik
      Courtney Mihocik
      Loans Editor

      Courtney Mihocik is an editor at The Simple Dollar who specializes in personal loans, student loans, auto loans, and debt consolidation loans. She is a former writer and contributing editor to Interest.com, PersonalLoans.org, and elsewhere.