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How to find your lost 401(k) and other retirement accounts

Between job changes, growing families, maybe even cross-country moves, losing access or forgetting about a retirement account is completely plausible.

Retirement Tip of the Week: If you think you have money floating around in a 401(k) or pension somewhere, try and find it with a few helpful resources. 

“For those of us who have been in the workforce for some time, it is easier than one might think to lose track of retirement assets,” said Larry Harris, a certified financial planner at Parsec Financial Wealth Management. 

Lost retirement money could be held in an “abandoned” 401(k) plan or a pension, or in the form of stock shares granted by the employer. 

The first step is to check your state’s treasury site, as states will take custody of these assets after a certain number of years (varied by state). Many states have an option to perform a search for unclaimed property, said Christopher Lyman, certified financial planner at Allied Financial Advisors. Be careful as to what site you’re actually on — a state government website will end in .gov, for example. “Claiming the property from there is a fairly straightforward process laid out by the state,” he said.

After searching Texas’s site, Jennifer Grant, a certified financial planner at Perryman Financial Advisory, found more than $100,000 in dividend checks to an individual retirement account for one client. The employer’s retirement plan included company stock, but because the retirement plan couldn’t find the employee, the dividend checks were turned over to the state as abandoned property. 

Try running the search using any name ever used, said Sarah Carlson, a certified financial planner and founder of Fulcrum Financial Group. 

Another route is to call the company or the financial services firm directly, if you have that information. One of Grant’s clients left a 401(k) plan at a former company in the 1980s, all of which was invested in company stock. “It took a number of phone calls to track it down, but we were both surprised that the $40,000 in company stock was now worth $400,000,” she said. 

“These are not typical, but the numbers are so stunning that I always look into it if the client thinks they might have left money behind when changing jobs,” Grant said. “In 2021, it is pretty easy to rollover a 401(k). In the ’80s and ’90s, it was not as simple and now these workers are retiring.” 

If that doesn’t work, there are some third-party companies that could do the work for you, though they may take a cut of the money. You also want to ensure they’re legitimate, reputable and safe, so do some research before agreeing to share sensitive information, such as your Social Security number and prior work history.

Gregory Giardino, a certified financial planner at J.M. Franklin & Company, said one of his clients used the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators at unclaimed.org to find lost stock shares. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a U.S. agency that oversees retirement assets, curated a list of other ways to find lost benefits and accounts.

Don’t think you have any lost money but afraid you might lose track of it all one day? The best course of action is to have everything written down, such as a personal financial statement, listing out all assets and liabilities. There, you can include information about the balances of your numerous retirement accounts and update them from year to year, Harris said. 

Keep retirement account statements or any paperwork from an employer indicating what benefits you’re entitled to at retirement. Some workers may want to consolidate their retirement accounts as they age or change jobs, but whether or not this strategy works will depend on retirement goals and plans, Giardino said. For example, some accounts may have more investment choices than others. 

For many workers, it’s probably worth the time to see if there is any “lost” money out there. “It seems to be the norm these days to have employees lose track of accounts, and many times they have benefits they did not realize they had, such as a profit-sharing plan or other types of qualified retirement plan like a 401(k),” Carlson said. 

Want more actionable tips for your retirement savings journey? Read MarketWatch’s “Retirement Hacks” column

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