How to Find Retirement Money and Pensions from a Former Employer
Could you use a windfall of a few thousand dollars extra? If you—or your spouse—has worked for a number of employers over the years, there might be several thousand dollars sitting around in some retirement account that belong to you. All you have to do is claim them.
My wife and I have enjoyed windfalls of over $2000 simply by claiming retirement assets from our first jobs. When I worked as a civil servant for the Navy years ago, my paycheck had a deduction for “Navy Cum Ret”. I claimed a refund of these deductions by submitting a form entitled “Application for Refund of Retirement Deductions”, found on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management's website (http://www.opm.gov/retire/pre/planning/refunds.asp). Along with the refund, I received interest on that amount! As for my wife, she held a 2-month substitute teaching job in 1988. Her paycheck included a mandatory deduction for the State of Connecticut Teachers’ Retirement Board. By contacting this entity and filing a change of address, we now receive statements showing that my wife’s initial deductions of $236.70 in 1988 have grown to $1992.04! This amount will continue to grow.
The fact that my wife and I have held multiple jobs over the years makes us fairly typical. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median worker had worked for their current employer for only 4.4 years as of January 2010. See http://www.bls.gov/news.release/tenure.nr0.htm. Thus a typical employee will work for at least a half dozen employers during their lifetime. Indeed, another BLS study found that individuals born between 1957 and 1964 held an average of 11 jobs from age 18 to age 44. http://www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/nlsoy.pdf. These individuals will no doubt hold additional jobs after age 44 until retirement. If you are typical, you will also have a history of employment changes.
With each change in employment, the worker may leave behind retirement assets belonging to him or her. For example, the worker might leave behind a vested pension, a 401K or 403(b) retirement plan, or another retirement or savings plan. As the years pass by, it’s easy to forget about these assets and misplace their accompanying paperwork.
Workers are more likely to accumulate retirement assets or build savings at some jobs than others. It’s unusual, for example, for a college student to have a pension plan or 401k at his summer job. But it’s likely that teachers, civil servants or other government employees, or union members will earn retirement benefits even for short periods of employment. Thus, when searching for lost money, it can pay to look harder at some past employers than others.
Steps to Find Lost Retirement Money
Follow these steps to find any of your lost retirement money:
1. Make a list of your past employers and when you worked for them. (If you are married, also make a list for your spouse.) For many people, this step is trivial as you already have the list: your resume or perhaps a copy of an employment application which asked for this information. Another place to look is at old tax returns, if you’ve kept copies going back through the years.
2. Prioritize the list to identify the most promising past employers. Your more promising jobs are where you worked as a teacher, civil servant or other government employee, or belonged to a union, or worked for a large employer with a full range of benefits, or worked for a long period of time. Less promising jobs are where you worked part-time or on a temporary basis, or worked for a small employer, or where you worked for only a brief period of time.
3. Review your files for any information about pensions, 401(k) or other retirement accounts. If you find any old statements, use the contact information to call the plan administrator (or visit the plan’s website) to provide change of address information. Look at old pay stubs and tax returns. If your pay stubs included deductions for anything sounding like a retirement account, you are likely entitled to at least your past deductions and any earnings on those deductions regardless of whether you met any vesting requirements for company contributions. A close review of the W-2 Wage and Tax Statements you used to prepare tax returns from previous years will often include information about contributions made to your 401(k), 403(b) or other retirement plans, or whether you were covered under a pension plan.
4. If your old employer no longer exists, find out what happened to them. Companies and businesses commonly change over time. One company may merge with another to form a new company, or one business might be bought by another. Despite these changes, the company’s retirement plans usually survive, and you have a valid claim to them. Internet searches will typically show what happened to your old employer. A good source to find information about companies that no longer exist is Hoovers.com at http://www.hoovers.com/. Or contact an old co-worker to find out. Then, contact the new employer to ask about your retirement assets.
5. If you worked for an employer which offered a pension but you can’t find the company or your records, contact the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). If you had a vested pension at a company that went bankrupt, the PBGC may have responsibility for your old pension plan, and you still have rights to your pension (although the amounts of your pension payments might be reduced if they exceed the amounts guaranteed by the PBGC). You can search for plans taken over by the PBGC at http://www.pbgc.gov/. See the brochure “Finding a Lost Pension” at http://www.pbgc.gov/docs/finding_a_lost_pension.pdf.
6. If you can’t find information about an old 401(k) retirement plan, visit the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits at https://www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com/. This site includes a free and easy to-use tool for searching unclaimed retirement plan benefits.
7. Contact the retirement plan sponsor. Your old employer most likely used a plan sponsor such as Fidelity Investments, Vanguard or Merrill Lynch to administer its retirement plans. You may find information about your old retirement account at the website of this sponsor.
8. One last place to search for old retirement assets is the missing money department of your state or local government. Information about these departments is summarized by the missingmoney.com website at http://www.missingmoney.com/Main/StateSites.cfm.