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How to find a lost or forgotten 401(k)

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Most people have several different jobs over the course of their career and studies have shown that younger generations are changing where they work more frequently than their older counterparts. Millennials spend an average of two years and nine months in a role, compared to an average of eight years and three months for baby boomers, according to recent data from CareerBuilder.

Meanwhile, more than half of Americans said they were very likely or somewhat likely to look for a new job in the next year, according to a recent Bankrate survey, as more people prioritize flexibility, the ability to work remotely and higher pay in their jobs.

With all this hopping from job to job, it can be challenging to keep track of your retirement accounts. There were nearly 25 million forgotten 401(k) accounts at the end of 2021, according to estimates from Capitalize, a platform that helps people roll over their 401(k)s. These forgotten accounts held assets worth $1.35 trillion in 2021, or about 20 percent of all 401(k) assets.

So how can you make sure you don’t lose track of the assets held in these forgotten 401(k) accounts? Here’s what you need to do.

How to find a lost 401(k)

Track down old 401(k) plan statements

The first thing you can do to find money held in forgotten 401(k) accounts is to go through old plan statements you may have. The statements could have come in the mail or you may have received them electronically through email.

Finding these statements makes it easier to know which employers you were at during the period when you had the 401(k) plan and can help you determine who to contact to access your account. You can also check with former co-workers who are still with the company to see who you should get in touch with.

Contact former employers

If you don’t have your old plan statements, the next best option is to reach out to your former employers directly, either through the Human Resources department or whoever handled benefits like retirement accounts.

By providing your personal information, such as your name and Social Security number, they should be able to look up whether you participated in the 401(k) plan during your employment.

Find 401(k) plan information through the Labor Department

Another option is to find plan information through the Department of Labor’s website. By locating the company’s Form 5500, an annual report required to be filed for employee benefit plans, you should be able to find contact information and who the plan’s administrator was during your employment.

You may also be able to find information on lost accounts through FreeERISA. You must register to use the site, but it is free to search once you’ve set up your account.

Search databases for unclaimed assets

If you still can’t find information on your lost 401(k) plans, you can also try searching one of the publicly available databases for unclaimed assets. The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits is a good place to start. By entering your Social Security number, you can quickly see if there are any unclaimed retirement funds that belong to you. The money may still be held in the employer’s plan, or the company may have opened a special IRA account in your name to hold the funds.

You can also search using the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators site, which will help you track down unclaimed money you may be owed, not limited to retirement assets. Be sure to check in each state you have lived or worked. The site processes tens of millions of requests each year and has helped return more than $3 billion in unclaimed assets annually.

What to do once you’ve found a lost 401(k)

Once you’ve located your old 401(k) accounts, you’ll likely want to choose one of the following options:

Roll over the old 401(k) account into your current employer’s plan

By rolling the old account into your current employer’s plan, you’ll be able to keep all your 401(k) accounts in one place, making it easier to keep track of them. However, most 401(k) plans have a limited number of investment offerings, so if you’re not happy with your current plan’s options, you’re probably better off rolling the old account into an IRA.

Roll over the old 401(k) account into an IRA

This will likely be the best option for most people because the IRA is attached to you instead of your employer, making it less likely that you’ll lose track of the account again. An IRA also comes with a much wider selection of investments than most 401(k) plans. You’ll be able to choose from individual stocks as well as mutual funds, ETFs and more.

If you don’t already have an IRA, you’ll need to set up an account before you roll over your 401(k). The process is fairly straightforward and you can open an IRA through most online brokers.

Bottom line

Finding lost and forgotten 401(k) accounts is important in order to maximize your retirement savings. Every little bit helps, so you don’t want to let hundreds or thousands of dollars go unclaimed. Even if the amount seems small today, the savings can add up over time as your investments compound and grow.

Consolidating your old accounts into your current plan or an IRA can help you organize your financial life and help you get a clearer picture of whether or not you’re on track to meet your financial goals.

Written by
Brian Baker
Investing reporter
Bankrate reporter Brian Baker covers investing and retirement. He has previous experience as an industry analyst at an investment firm. Baker is passionate about helping people make sense of complicated financial topics so that they can plan for their financial futures.
Edited by
Senior wealth editor