According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American has held 11.7 jobs from age 18 to 48.  When switching jobs, 401(k) money doesn't automatically switch with you.  In fact, by some estimates, more than 900,000 workers lose track of their 401(k) plans each year!  This leaves many people at some point working hard to track down an old 401(k) account or accounts.  The good news is that the money should stay in your account.  Here are some tips to help you track down your old retirement account.

If your 401(k) account was less than $5,000 when you change jobs and you didn't indicate what should be done with the money, the plan can transfer the account balance to an IRA of the plan’s choosing.  If you had under $1,000 in the account, the plan could have sent you a check, which would trigger taxes and penalties if you didn’t put it into another retirement account in a timely manner.  You can confirm this by reviewing your tax return from the year you left the company.  Reference the 1099 tax form that is generated to show that money was distributed from a retirement account and should accompany your tax return.

Contact Your Old Employer

My first suggestion is to contact the Human Resources Department or Benefits Office of your old employer.  Explain to them that you are trying to track down an old 401(k) that you previously had with the company.  Be sure to have your social security number and employment dates handy.  The HR department should have records of your retirement plan account, account details, and be able to provide you the forms to rollover your money to a different 401(k) or IRA Rollover account. 

If for some reason, you hit a dead end, you should ask for the current plan administator or record keeper of plan.  Because 401(k) plans are required to file an annual Form 5500, you can search the Department of Labor website at to locate your plan and find contact information for the firm that administers the plan.  Try contacting the plan administrator or record keeper directly to see if they can help locate your account or provide you tips to do so. 

Find an Old Statement

If you are not able to contact your old employer, try finding an old statement.  Statements typically include a phone number and/or website where you can access your account.  The website may have additional resources including instructions that you may need.

If You Can't Find Your Old Employer

Sometimes, your former employer may no longer exist because it was acquired by another company. In such cases, your old 401(k) may have been merged into the acquiring company's plan.  Try contacting the acquiring company's HR department to see if they can assist you.

You can go to the United States Department of Labor website to search for abandoned plans or plans that are in the process of being, or have been, terminated. If you cannot locate your employer or find your plan in the database, you can contact an EBSA's Benefits Advisor to assist you by calling 1-866-444-EBSA (3272).

Search Databases

There is a private company that maintains a database that matches employers and former employees to claim their retirement benefits.  The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits will allow you to perform a free search for any retirement plan balances in your name.  FYI, you will only appear in the database if your former employer participates with this registry.  Many employers participate because the service helps plan sponsors meet its legal requirements.

The U.S. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., or PBGC, also runs a missing-participants program with a searchable database.

In our blog post Unclaimed Property – Claim Your Cash Today, we wrote about the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators' (NAUPA) website to see if you have any unclaimed money.  It's worth doing a search here too. 


Good Luck

We hope that you find this article helpful.  Perhaps you'll even find other unclaimed monies in addition to locating your 401(k)!

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If this article helps you track down an old 401(k) or other unclaimed funds, please post a comment.  We'd love to hear your good news.

“401k written on a paper” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0