It is not uncommon to lose track of an old 401(k) account after you change jobs. It’s easy for people to assume their 401(k) contributions continue when they get a new job. Financial services company Capitalize estimated that 24.3 million 401(k) accounts abandoned nationwide in 2021. If you have lost track of an orphaned 401(k) account, here’s what you can do.
A financial advisor can help you locate an orphaned 401(k) and create a financial plan for your retirement needs and goals.
What Is a 401(k) and How Does it Work?
A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored plan in which you divert portions of each paycheck into a retirement investing account. This is a defined contribution plan because account holders regularly contribute a set amount to their account. This is in contrast to defined benefit plans, like a pension, where it’s the payouts in retirement that are predetermined.
How much you subtract from your paycheck and contribute to your 401(k) is entirely up to you. Just know that for 2022, the IRS generally caps annual contributions at $20,500.
To help you grow you retirement savings, many employers offer 401(k) matching contributions. In other words, your employer will also contribute to your account up to a certain dollar amount or percentage of your annual salary. This basically amounts to free money, so you should make every effort to at least contribute up to that limit if your employer offers matching.
These plans are only available through an employer.
Where to Look for Old 401(k) Accounts
If you have lost track of an old retirement account, you can contact your former employer, if they’re still in business. The plan administrator can also help you locate an account. But if you are unsure about tracking either, you can look your account up in these five databases:
- National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. Not every company that offers 401(k)’s will be registered here, but many are. You’ll have to provide your Social Security number to begin your search.
- Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database. This is a program that helps terminate individual account pension plans and aids with distributing the benefits. If you think a previous employer that is no longer in business might have had a 401(k), this database should be able to pull up information on it.
- FreeERISA. This is a website specializing in employee benefit data, where you can search for employee benefit and retirement plan filings by location. You can sign up for free but may get charged a fee to access certain documents.
- U.S. Pension Guaranty Corp. database of unclaimed pensions. You’ll be asked to furnish your name, address, contact information, Social Security number, your employer’s name and the dates you worked for the company.
- MissingMoney.com. This is a website run by states and provinces and the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). If your 401(k) no long exists for some reason, the money may have wound up in a state or province’s unclaimed property fund. You simply type in your first and last name and city and state and see what comes up. Even if you don’t turn up an old 401(k) account, you might find money from another source such as an insurance claim or money that a bank owes you.
What to Do With Your Old 401(k) After You Find It
If you are able to locate an orphaned 401(k) account, you may want to take the money. However, if your 401(k) is still earning money, you may also decide to leave it where it is until retirement. That includes keeping it with your former employer if you are allowed to do so. Leaving it there allows your money to continue to grow and be tax-deferred.
And if you are 55 years old or over, you can take penalty-free withdrawals from your 401(k) if you need to once you leave the company. That could be useful since you wouldn’t be allowed to make additional contributions after you leave the company.
But also keep in mind that if you have less than $5,000 in your account, the remaining balance could be sent to you or moved to an IRA on your behalf. Make sure to check your balance thoroughly if you don’t want your money moved.
Assuming you don’t want the money to remain in your old employer’s 401(k), you’d likely want to roll it over into your current employer’s 401(k) plan or transfer the money to an IRA. You should note that any direct withdrawals before age 59 1/5 could face a 10% penalty. Additionally, you would also have to pay income tax on the withdrawal money.
If your money is found in an unclaimed funds account, you should check whether you have to pay taxes on it. Sometimes a provider will have paid the taxes of an account before it gets transferred to an unclaimed funds account from the state. though this is not always the case.
Over 24 million 401(k) accounts were abandoned nationwide in 2021. If you have one of those orphaned accounts, tracking your money down doesn’t have to be daunting. You can start by tracking down your former employer or 401(k) plan administrator. There are also retirement plan databases where you can locate that lost money.
Retirement Planning Tips
- A financial advisor can help you audit and, if needed, roll over an old 401(k). Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- Our free 401(k) calculator will help you figure out what your 401(k) will be worth at retirement.
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