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Lost and found pension benefits

Where do you look when you're trying to find a little bit of the money you've left behind over the years? The couch cushions? The bins in your car? Instead of hunting for small change, think bigger: a forgotten pension fund.

According to government records, about 32,000 retirees are owed more than $133 million in unclaimed pension benefits. Most are unaware they ever earned the benefits. Others know they've got retirement money coming to them but have long since lost track of their former employers, which may have merged, dissolved or been sold.

"People early in their career change jobs or get married and change their name and they move on with their lives, forgetting they were at a particular employer long enough to have become vested with a benefit," said Gary Pastorius, a spokesman for the Washington-based Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp, or PBGC. "As the years pass, when they don't leave a forwarding address, it becomes harder to find them."

The PBGC, a federal corporation created by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, protects the pensions of 44 million American workers and retirees. One of its tasks is tracking down missing participants who are entitled to benefits from a defined benefit pension plan -- those that pay out a specific dollar amount each month. So far, the agency has matched 22,356 account holders with lost pensions.

A possible gold mine
While the largest lost pension on record is valued at $611,028, most carry a far smaller balance. PBGC reports the average account is worth $4,950. The smallest is worth $1.

Even so, says Clare Hushbeck, a labor economist with the AARP in Washington, retirees should take the time to investigate whether they've left money on the table.

"There are still thousands of seniors who are owed retirement benefits that they are entitled to," she says. "It may just be another $98 a month, but it's worth looking into because at least it's something."

Other missing funds
Pension funds, however, aren't the only retirement benefits languishing in the lost and found. Thousands of defined contribution plans, including 401(k)s and profit sharing plans, are also marked "unclaimed."
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, or NRURB, based in San Diego and operated by the benefit distribution processing firm PenChecks, keeps a running list of more than 50,000 individuals who are owed benefits from 401(k)s, profit sharing plans or individual retirement accounts and either can't be reached or remain unresponsive. Like the PBGC, its database also includes lost pensions.

Created in 2005, the NRURB Web-based list includes names of individuals for whom their former employers have set up IRAs to preserve their retirement assets. The IRAs are invested in no-risk money market funds or certificates of deposit. Any earnings are the property of the account holder. Most of the accounts included in the database are valued between $600 and $1,000.

Next: "Take the benefit as a lump sum or roll it over into and IRA."
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