When you start a new job at another company, you may forget to transfer your retirement account from your former employer. Fortunately, it is possible to recover the funds in an old 401(k). To reclaim your lost 401(k) funds, you can contact your former employer or plan administrator, utilize third-party recovery assistance, or use your Social Security number to track down the old account.
Starting from scratch sounds appealing after falling behind in a five-hour Monopoly game, but not after years spent building your retirement savings. It used to be common for people to graduate college and work at the same company until they hit retirement age, but for better or worse, those days have long since passed. Today, the average American will have around 12 jobs in his or her working life, which can leave behind a trail of partially funded retirement accounts.
If you ever plan to retire, the last thing you want to do is leave lost funds behind in a retirement plan you’re no longer using. While changing careers can be an exciting new chapter in your professional life, you may sometimes forget to move your retirement account to your new job. Thankfully, there are methods you can use to recover old retirement accounts.
If you’ve lost an old retirement account, you should take action as soon as possible to recover your hard-earned retirement savings. You may not remember your old account information, but as long as you know your Social Security number, you can use it to find your lost 401(k). Let’s take a closer look at how your Social Security number can make recovering your retirement savings easier.
How to use your Social Security number to find your 401(k) account
Many companies automatically open 401(k) accounts for their employees. Contributing to your 401(k) plan can be a great way to build wealth for retirement, especially if you start young.
Whenever you change jobs, your 401(k) account may slip through the cracks. It’s a common mistake, but one with potentially costly consequences. Upon leaving a company, you’ll want to promptly roll your contributions over to your new employer’s 401(k) plan or to an IRA. But what should you do if you forget to make this transfer? That’s where your Social Security number comes in.
Your Social Security number has many applications, including recovering old 401(k) funds. The quickest and easiest way to find your 401(k) using your Social Security number is to search unclaimed property databases, such as the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits (NRURB). Here’s how to use it:
How to search the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
- Visit the NRURB “Find My Funds” page.
- Enter your Social Security number and click “Search.”
- Scan the results for information about your lost account(s).
- Contact your former employer(s).
Searching the NRURB database is simple and free, but it’s not guaranteed to solve your problem. If your search doesn’t turn up any results, you can use a third-party recovery service, such as Beagle. These services may be able to use your Social Security number and employment history to help you uncover and roll over lost retirement plans.
Other ways to find your 401(k)
By the time you realize you’ve misplaced your retirement savings, you may not have worked for your former employer for years. Factor in the compounded interest and the missing funds can put quite a dent in your retirement planning. If you don’t want to (or can’t) use your Social Security number, here are a few other methods you can use to recover past 401(k) accounts:
Contact your former employers
Reaching out to your previous employer may not exactly be fun, but it beats having to delay your retirement! If you lose track of an old retirement plan, contacting your former employer is likely your best option.
If you changed jobs within the last few years and you had a 401(k) plan through your previous employer, they may still have your account information on file. Even though you’ve left the company, the 401(k) plan should still be with them if you never transferred it to your new employer.
The federal government requires employers who sponsor retirement plans to keep plan records until the former employee or their estate claims it or “until the [plan] has paid all benefits and enough time has passed that the plan won’t be audited.”
Contact your ex-employer’s human resources department and ask if they have records of a 401(k) plan in your name. If it’s been a long time since you were employed at the company, the employer may have to contact the plan administrator, which could lead to delays.
Contact the plan administrator directly
401(k) accounts are typically administered by a financial institution or a third-party company. If you remember which provider your employer used to manage its employees’ retirement plans, you can contact them directly to find your old 401(k). If you don’t recall which provider managed the company’s retirement plans, a quick email or phone call to your former employer’s HR department should help you acquire the plan administrator’s contact information.
Exceptions to keep in mind
Plan administrators may keep longer records of retirement plans than employers do. However, neither is required to hold your account records if your account balance was less than $5,000 or if the employer terminated the plan. In such cases, federal law allows employers and administrators to transfer funds into a particular type of IRA without the consent of the plan’s beneficiary. This is a more common practice with employees who take a new job every year or two.
Government organizations or private recovery services, such as Beagle, can help you recover abandoned retirement funds. If all else fails, here are some resources that may help you track down your old retirement plans:
- The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is a government agency that protects pension beneficiaries in the event of bankruptcy and also maintains a database of unclaimed retirement benefits.
- The Employee Benefits Security Administration’s Abandoned Plan Program database lets you enter basic information about yourself and your previous employer to search for unclaimed retirement plans.
- The Department of Labor Form 5500 Search tool can be used to look for past 401(k) plans.
- You can hire a legal or financial professional to help locate a missing account or claim benefits. These specialists can walk you through the previously mentioned steps and scour available IRS data for your information. They may also help you uncover and avoid 401(k) fees. Working with an individual or team gives you more control over your recovery efforts, but this option may be more expensive than utilizing government resources on your own.
Termination of retirement accounts and how to find them again
Companies can terminate 401(k) programs if they are no longer viable. Upon terminating retirement plans, the plan sponsor must transfer all of the accounts to their respective beneficiaries. If the employer cannot contact a plan’s beneficiary, they are permitted to send the funds to an IRA, to another bank, or even to a state’s unclaimed property administrators.
As mentioned above, federal government organizations have retirement plan databases. Additionally, most states have unclaimed 401(k) or pension account databases. If your previous employer could not reach you, these are critical places to search to recover your lost funds. Regardless, it’s important to remember that even if your old retirement plan no longer exists, the money it contained still rightfully belongs to you.
Can you open a 401(k) with a Social Security number?
Yes. To open a 401(k) plan, you will typically need to provide your Social Security number to your employer, as they will use it for tracking and tax purposes.
How do you find out if you have a 401(k) from an old job?
The first step is to contact your former employer. If that doesn’t work, you can reach out to the plan administrator for a record of your account. You can also search the databases of the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, the Department of Labor, and the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s Abandoned Plan Program.
How long can a company hold your 401(k) after you leave?
If you leave a job voluntarily, your 401(k) account should remain with your previous job until you decide what to do with it. You can leave it where it is, roll it over to a new employer’s 401(k), or transfer it to an IRA you created.
If you are laid off or fired, your prior employer will distribute the balance of your 401(k) to you within a specified time frame. If you elect not to receive a distribution, they may transfer the funds into an IRA in your name instead.
Does a 401(k) expire after you leave a job?
A 401(k) does not expire; your vested contributions always belong to you. However, the plan’s terms and location may change after you leave your job. That’s why it’s best to distribute your funds immediately after you start a new career.
- When you change jobs, you may forget to roll your past 401(k) contributions over to your new account. If that happens, it’s possible to use your Social Security number or other resources to track down your hard-earned retirement savings.
- If you’re trying to recover an old 401(k) account, your best bet is to contact your former employer or the plan administrator that manages the company’s retirement plans.
- The United States federal government has resources in place for former employees who have lost track of their retirement funds. You can use your Social Security number to search the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. If that doesn’t work, you can search unclaimed pension databases to look for your missing 401(k) account.
- Some third-party professionals specialize in recovering lost retirement plans. If you’re willing to pay for such services, this could be an excellent option for finding your old 401(k) plans with minimal effort.
Contributing to a 401(k) is a great way to save for retirement, but it’s not your only option. If you’d rather not deal with the hassle of tracking down old retirement plans or rolling over your 401(k) every time you change career paths, you can take your retirement savings into your own hands by opening an individual retirement account (IRA).
Not sure where to start? SuperMoney can help! Start by reading our guides on retirement planning and the differences between a 401(k) and a Roth IRA, then use our comparison tool to find the best brokerage firms for your new investment account!
View Article Sources
- 401(k) Plans – IRS.gov
- Number of Jobs, Labor Market Experience, Marital Status, and Health: Results From a National Longitudinal Survey – U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
- Maintaining Your Retirement Plan Records – IRS.gov
- Labor Department Announces Final Rules to Help Workers In Abandoned 401(k) Plans – U.S. Department of Labor
- Find My Funds – National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
- 5 Ways of Finding My Old 401(k)s, Including Using SSN – Beagle
- Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation – PBGC.gov
- Abandoned Plans – U.S. Department of Labor
- Form 5500 Series – U.S. Department of Labor
- 401(k) Plan Termination – IRS.gov
- How Much To Contribute to a 401(k) in Your 20s – SuperMoney
- What is a Tax-Free Retirement Account (TFRA)? – SuperMoney
- How Does Your 401(k) Plan Measure Up? – SuperMoney
- 401k Withdrawals – SuperMoney
- 401(k) Losing Money: What To Do & How To Stop It – SuperMoney
- 401(k) Fees? Don’t Worry, Here is What You Can Do About Them – SuperMoney
- 401(k) Contribution Limits for 2023 – SuperMoney
- Ultimate Retirement Guide – SuperMoney
- 401k vs. Roth IRA: Which One Should You Choose? – SuperMoney