Finding a “lost plan” requires detective work, it helps if you kept records containing information that could lead to your former employer
Where to look for a “lost plan” if you think your former employer may still be in business.
Search any records you may have, including plan documents, to find employer addresses, phone numbers and corporate officer contact information. The employer identification number (EIN) can be particularly useful for lost plan searches. It helps to know whether the retirement plan was a pension plan or a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k).
Former co-workers may know the whereabouts of an old employer.
If there was a union at the company, someone at the union office may know where to find the employer or plan.
An internet search may yield an address for the employer or a news article about what happened to the employer.
Employers with retirement plans are required to file annual financial reports with the U.S. Department of Labor. These “Form 5500” reports have the employer’s address and contact information. The Department of Labor has a list of Form 5500 reports. There are two ways to search the list: The Department of Labor website, (https://www.efast.dol.gov/portal/app/disseminatePublic?execution=e1s1) and freeerisa.com (free registration required). It is good to try both searches for the most recent information.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) insures traditional pension plans (often called defined benefit plans). The PBGC maintains a list of insured plans that includes a company contact number and the company EIN number. (https://www.pbgc.gov/search-insured-plans)
The Social Security Administration sends a notice of “Potential Private Pension Benefit Information” (Form SSA) to persons whose employers reported that they left employment without taking their benefits. Persons who receive this notice may be prompted to search for benefits. The notice will have the employer identification number (EIN). However, it helps to know that the notices are sent when an employee or beneficiary of an employee applies for Social Security benefits, but the information in the notice is provided when an employee left employment. Thus, the notice is often based on old information and the benefits could have been paid out long ago.
Where to look for a “lost plan” if you think your former employer may no longer be in business.
If you think your employer may no longer be in business or terminated your plan for some other reason, you should contact the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Employers with traditional pension plans are required to submit reports to the PBGC listing any participants they were not able to find. PBGC has an online searchable list of “missing participants.” (https://www.pbgc.gov/wr/missing-participants)
If you were in a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k), that terminated, the employer may have chosen to send the names of missing participants at the time of termination to the PBGC to be included in the missing participants list. This is not required and only applies to recently terminated retirement savings plans.
If the money in a missing participant’s account is not sent to the PBGC, Labor Department rules permit transfer of the account balance to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) in the participant’s name, or to a federally insured bank account, or to a state unclaimed property program. If you suspect your account balance was transferred to an IRA and not reported to the PBGC, the plan’s former service provider or financial institution administering the plan might know where your old employer sent the money.
If you think your employer may have gone out of business and simply abandoned your 401(k) plan, you should contact the Employee Benefits Security Administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. EBSA has a list of abandoned 401(k) plans. (https://www.askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/)
What you need to know about small account “forced transfers."
Employers with active plans may, but are not required to, “cash out” small accounts of $5,000 or less after an employee has terminated employment. Another name for this practice is “forced transfer.” Generally, plans cannot pay out benefits unless an employee gives consent. A “forced transfer” is an exception to that rule. These transfers are most common in 401(k) plans. The rules of the plan must permit a forced transfer.
If an employer cannot find a former employee, and the account balance is more than $1,000 but less than $5,000 Labor Department rules require that the employer put the money into an IRA in the employee’s name. If the account balance is $1,000 or less, the money can be transferred into an IRA or a check may be sent to the employee.
Where to look if you learn that your money was transferred out of your plan.
The first thing to do is call the former employer to learn where they send small account transfers.
If the employer cannot be found, the plan service provider or financial institution administering the plan could have information on the whereabouts of the employer as well as where the employer usually sends small account transfers.
Without a clear lead a former employee could contact a local IRA provider.
Think you need additional help? Here are some other resources:
The U.S. Administration on Community Living/Administration on Aging’s Pension Counseling and Information Program provides legal assistance in 30 states to persons with retirement plan issues: find help here.
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