There are a number of ways you could lose track of a 401(k) with a previous employer. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average worker will hold about 12 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50. A lost 401(k) could easily be accidentally left behind through so many employment changes.
In a survey conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 17 states reported a total of $35 million in unclaimed retirement funds in 2016. Most states did not provide data, so the actual amount of unclaimed money in the U.S. is likely higher than this.
Whether you know you have a lost 401(k), or you're unsure if you have unclaimed money, here are some next steps to consider.
How to Find a Lost 401(k)
If you know you have a retirement account that you have simply lost track of, you'll likely need to get in touch with the plan provider. This could be tough to do if you can't remember who the provider was. Here are a couple of methods to consider to help track down your plan provider's information:
Consider Contacting Your Former Employer
Consider giving your old employer a call and asking to speak to either the human resources or accounting department. With your name, Social Security number and dates of employment, they may be able to tell you if you were ever a plan participant. If you were, they might be able to provide you with the contact information for the plan provider.
Try to Get in Touch With Old Coworkers
Companies change names, move locations, merge with other companies, and sometimes shut their doors. If the company you worked for no longer exists or can't be found, you might want to reach out to former coworkers to see if anyone from your old network held onto their plan participation information. In the age of social media, this may be a quick and easy way to remind yourself who your plan provider was.
Research the Plan's Form 5500
Many retirement plans are required to file taxes using a Form 5500. You could do a search for your plan's Form 5500 using your former employer's name on the Department of Labor's website. The form will likely have the plan provider's contact information, and then you can call them directly to check on your unclaimed 401(k).
If You're Unsure Whether You Have a Lost 401(k)
Locating an unclaimed 401(k) account that you know about is relatively simple. It becomes a little more difficult if you're unaware of a retirement account — whether you misplaced your own, or are unsure whether a deceased loved one left an account behind. There are, however, several databases that you may want to check for unclaimed retirement accounts.
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits is a free service powered by a private company that helps match former employees with unclaimed retirement funds. Though not all employers appear on this database, it could be a good place to start if you suspect you may have an unclaimed retirement account out there.
What to Do With Your Lost 401(k) Funds
When you've tracked down a misplaced 401(k), you'll want to keep in mind that this money is still governed by tax-advantaged retirement account rules. That means any account holder will owe income taxes, and if you're under age 59 1/2, you may owe an additional 10% early withdrawal penalty. For more information, you may want to consult with a tax professional.
There are options if you decide to keep this money in a retirement account. First, if your current employer offers a 401(k) plan, you may want to consider rolling over your lost 401(k). Alternatively, you could roll over the old account balance into an IRA.
A little homework may help you identify any lost 401(k) or other retirement accounts that may have slipped your mind — and making some savvy choices with your found account might help you feel a little more prepared for retirement.