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Finding missing pension benefits

Could a little more money brighten your retirement? Maybe you're one of the thousands of people who are entitled to a share of the millions in pension money that's sitting unclaimed.

Maybe you left an employer in your 30s and forgot you left behind a pension. Or maybe you worked for a company that went belly up a long time ago and you figure the pension went with it.

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Millions of dollars are out there, waiting for the right people to come along and claim them.

Anna Ford endured a one-hour ride each way to work every day; two buses to get there, two buses to get home. For 15 years, she slogged through all kinds of weather to get to her job at the Rosbro Plastics factory in Pawtucket, R.I., where they made Halloween and Christmas toys.

Ford left Rosbro in 1973 and says she was told she didn't qualify for a pension. She thought it was because she hadn't been in the union long enough. But a chance encounter in 2000 with a former co-worker left her thinking she was entitled to a pension.

Ford, now 64, tried tracking it down, but Rosbro went out of business when its parent company filed for bankruptcy in 1998. She says her calls to Rosbro's parent company were not returned.

It doesn't take much to lose track of a pension, otherwise known as a defined benefit plan. Leave a company before retirement and you might need to hold on to paperwork for many years. If the company goes out of business, the search can be tougher.

But there are government agencies and nonprofit centers that will help you find your pension for free.

Government-funded pension finders
"The workforce is more mobile now, people change jobs more frequently and it stands to reason that they lose track of small vested pension benefits that they had early in their careers," says Jeffrey Speicher, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

"If their company has merged, changed names, moved, maybe gone bankrupt and re-emerged under a different name; there are many reasons that aren't the fault of the worker."

PBGC is a federal government agency that insures the minimum pension benefits of 35,000 private companies. Since 1974, all companies that have more than 25 employees enrolled in a defined benefit plan are required to register with PBGC.

If a company terminates a pension plan that isn't fully funded, PBGC becomes the trustee of the plan and guarantees payment of the basic benefits.

"A company doesn't have to go bankrupt, but the overwhelming majority that we take over occur in bankruptcies," Speicher says.

PBGC also keeps track of benefits due former employees who can't be located.

"Any unclaimed pension funds from the plan also come to us along with the names of the individuals. Sometimes a company wants to end a defined benefit plan and create a defined contribution plan. They'd terminate the plan, pay all the benefits and we'd take the names of people they couldn't find," says Speicher.

"The company has already conducted a search, and then we attempt to weed out what we can through publicly available databases such as the postal service and telephone directories."

The names of the people the PBGC can't find go into the PBGC database, which you can access via its Web site so people who have lost track of a private pension can search by their name, the company name, or by state. There is no charge for the service.

PBGC's search program has found more than 14,000 people who were owed more than $34 million dollars. But the names of 13,000 people are still in the database. Those people are entitled to $43 million in benefits. New names are being added all the time.

Nonprofit pension finders
Many people who are looking for missing pension benefits can also be helped by one of the handful of nonprofit pension counseling projects throughout the nation. These organizations are often funded by the U.S. Administration on Aging and private foundations. There is no charge for their services.

Ellen Bruce, director of the University of Massachusetts-Boston Pension Action Center, says her office gets 500 to 600 calls each year, many of them from people trying to locate their pension benefits.

"People come with a host of different emotions depending on their situations and how long they've been trying on their own. Some people are extremely frustrated, they haven't gotten any answers and they come to us. Others have just started to search and found the company is no longer there.

"Private company plans are the biggest problem. Government plans are much easier to locate. Union plans can sometimes create a problem, but the biggest problem is with private companies," Bruce says.

Anna Ford's fortuitous encounter with a former co-worker eventually led her to Bruce's office.

"She came to us because she didn't know where to apply. It turned out PBGC had taken over Rosbro's pension plan but she wasn't listed in PBGC's database. We contacted the union and found that she was entitled because she was in an old plan," says Bruce.

Ford's pension was small but, says Ford, well worth the time it took to locate it.

"I got a lump sum of $3,400 after taxes. It's not much, but I was very happy to get this little bit of money."

If you work for a company that has a defined benefit plan, hold on to all the paperwork the company gives you. Perhaps stash it in a safe-deposit box so it's less likely to get lost.

"The law requires that when a person becomes a member of a pension plan that they be given a brief description of the plan, it's called a summary plan description. Keep that and any statement the company provides about the plan, and save your final pay statement," says Speicher

If you're vested in a pension plan and you quit the company, you should be given a notice of deferred vested benefits when you leave. Keep that in a safe place also.

It's also a good idea to notify the plan administrator anytime you change address.

If you believe you are entitled to a private pension and you can't contact your former employer, check the PBGC Web site. Don't give up if your name isn't listed. PBGC gives step-by-step advice on what to do if you can't find your name in its database.

PBGC's publication Finding A Lost Pension provides additional in-depth information that can aid in your search.

The Pension Rights Center in Washington, D.C., lists addresses and phone numbers for the pension counseling centers.

If your pension is outside the area served by the Pension Counseling Centers, or if you're trying to locate a federal or military pension, check this list for assistance.

-- Posted: Jan. 14, 2003




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