How to Find an Old 401(k)

By Rebecca Lake · February 13, 2024 · 7 minute read

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How to Find an Old 401(k)

Tracking down an old 401(k) may take some time, and perhaps the quickest way to find old 401(k) money is to contact your former employer to see where the account is now. It’s possible that your lost 401(k) isn’t lost at all; instead, it’s right where you left it.

In some cases, however, employers may cash out an old 401(k) or roll it over to an IRA on behalf of a former employee. In that case, you might have to do a little more digging to find lost 401(k) funds. If you ever wished you could click on an app called “Find my 401(k),” the following strategies may be of use.

4 Ways to Track Down Lost or Forgotten 401(k) Accounts

There’s no real secret to how to find old 401(k) accounts. But the process can be a little time consuming as it may require you to search online or make a phone call or two. But it can be well worth it if you’re able to locate your old 401(k).

There are several ways to find an old 401(k) account. Here are a handful that may prove fruitful.

Contact Former Employers

The first place to start when trying to find old 401(k) accounts is with your previous employer.

If you had more than $5,000 in your 401(k) at the time you left your job, it’s likely that your account may still be right where you left it. In that case, you have a few options for what to do with the money:

•   Leave it where it is

•   Transfer your 401(k) to your current employer’s qualified plan

•   Rollover the account into an Individual Retirement Account (IRA)

•   Cash it out

When your plan balance is less than $5,000 your employer might require you to do a 401(k) rollover or cash it out. If you’re comfortable with the investment options offered through the plan and the fees you’ll pay, you might decide to leave it alone until you get a little closer to retirement. On the other hand, if you’d like to consolidate all of your retirement money into a single account, you may want to roll it into your current plan or into an IRA.

Cashing out your 401(k) has some downsides. You would owe taxes on the money, and likely an early withdrawal penalty as well. So you may only want to consider this option if your account holds a smaller amount of money. If you had less than $5,000 in your old 401(k), it’s possible that your employer may have rolled the money over to an IRA for you or cashed it out and mailed a check to you.

Recommended: How Does a 401(k) Rollover Work?

Track Down Old Statements

If you have an old account statement, you can contact your 401(k) provider directly to find out what’s happened to your lost 401(k). This might be necessary if your former employer has gone out of business and your old 401(k) plan was terminated.

When a company terminates a 401(k), the IRS requires a rollover notice to be sent to plan participants. If you’ve moved since leaving the company, the plan administrator may have outdated address information for you on file. So you may not be aware that the money was rolled over.

Either way, your plan administrator should be able to tell you which custodian now holds your lost 401(k) funds. Once you have that information, you could reach out to the custodian to determine how much money is in the account. You can then decide if you want to leave it where it is, roll it over to another retirement account, or cash it out.

Check With Government Agencies

Different types of retirement plans, including 401(k) plans, are required to keep certain information on file with the IRS and the Department of Labor (DOL). One key piece of information is DOL Form 5500. This form is used to collect data for employee benefit plans that are subject to federal ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) guidelines.

How does that help you find your 401(k)? The Department of Labor offers a Form 5500 search tool online that you can use to locate lost 401(k) plans. You can search by plan name or plan sponsor. If you know either one, you can look up the plan’s Form 5500, which should include contact information. From there, you can reach out to the plan sponsor to track down your lost 401(k).

Search National Registries

Another place to try is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. This is an online database you can use to search for an unclaimed 401(k) that you may have left with a previous employer. You’ll need to enter your Social Security number to search for lost retirement account benefits.

In order for your name to come up in the search results, your former employer must have entered your name and personal information in that database. If they haven’t done so, it’s possible you may not find your account this way.

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What Should I Do With Recovered Funds?

If you do manage to recover an old 401(k) account and its assets, you’ll have some options as to what to do with it. In many cases, it might be a good idea to roll it over into another retirement account to try and stay on track with your retirement savings.

Another important point to consider: If you’ve changed jobs multiple times, it’s possible that you could have more than one “lost” 401(k) — and taken together, that money could make a surprising difference to your nest egg.

Last, if you were lucky to have an employer that offered a matching 401(k) contribution, your missing account (or accounts) may have more money in them than you think. For example, a common employer match is 50%, up to the first 6% of your salary. If you don’t make an effort to find old 401(k) accounts, you’re missing out on that “free money” as well.

But if you’re unsure of what to do, it may be worth speaking with a financial professional for guidance.

Further, if you’re not able to find lost 401(k) accounts you still have plenty of options for retirement savings. Contributing to your current employer’s 401(k) allows you to set aside money on a tax-deferred basis. And you might be able to grow your money faster with an employer matching contribution.

What if you’re self-employed? In that case, you could choose to open a solo or individual 401(k). This type of 401(k) plan is designed for business owners who have no employees or only employ their spouses. These plans follow the same contribution and withdrawal rules as traditional employer-sponsored 401(k) plans, though special contribution rules apply if you’re self-employed.

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The Takeaway

There are several ways to try and find an old 401(k) account, but for most people, the best place to start is by contacting your old employers to see if they can help you. From there, you can also try reaching out to government agencies, tracking down old statements, or even searching through databases to see what you can find.

Saving for retirement is important for most people who are trying to reach their financial goals – as such, if you have money or assets in a retirement account, it may be worthwhile to try and track it down. Again, it may be worth consulting with a financial professional if you need help.

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Is it possible to lose your 401(k)?

It’s possible to lose money from your 401(k) if you’re cashing it out and taking a big tax hit or your investments suffer losses. But simply changing jobs doesn’t mean your old 401(k) is gone for good. It does, however, mean that you may need to spend time locating it if it’s been a while since you changed jobs.

Do I need my social security number to find an old 401(k)?

Generally, yes, you’ll need your Social Security number to find a lost 401(k) account. This is because your Social Security number is used to verify your identity and ensure that the plan you’re inquiring about actually belongs to you.

What happens to an unclaimed 401(k)?

Unclaimed 401(k) accounts may be liquidated or converted to cash if enough time passes, and that cash could be transferred to a state government, where it will be held as unclaimed property.

Can a financial advisor find old 401(k) accounts?

A financial advisor may be able to help, but the simplest way to find old 401(k) accounts is contacting your former employer. It’s possible your money may still be in your old plan and if not, your previous employer or plan administrator may be able to tell you where it’s been moved to.

Photo credit: iStock/svetikd

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