If you’re one of the many workers who have quit their jobs at a record-setting rate during the pandemic, you may have forgotten your 401(k) plan along the way.
When you quit a job, you can either leave your 401(k) with your old employer, cash it out, roll it over into an individual retirement account (IRA) or merge it with your new company’s 401(k) plan.
Often, workers want to leave their old employer’s plan behind when they switch jobs. Over time, however, they can be forgotten, or even lost.
As of the end of 2021, there were nearly 25 million forgotten 401(k) accounts worth about 20% of all 401(k) assets in the U.S., according to estimates by Capitalize, a financial services company that specializes in 401(k)s.
Since these funds typically remain invested, they can add up to a lot of money: The average forgotten 401(k) account balance is $55,400, according to Capitalize’s analysis. Plus, you’re likely paying unnecessary administration fees to keep those additional 401(k) accounts open, which is why consolidating 401(k) plans can be a smart move.
To avoid missing out on those funds, you’ll want to make sure you’ve tracked down all of your plans.
How to find a lost 401(k)
The simplest way to track down a wayward 401(k) account is to contact your previous employer’s human resources department and ask if you still have a leftover 401(k) plan. Or, if you still have old statements, they should include your plan’s account number, as well as the plan administrator’s contact information.
In some cases, the amount of money held in your account might affect where the funds end up.
If the funds in your lost 401(k) account total less than $1,000, your old employer is allowed to cash it out. In that case, the company might have mailed you a check already. If the funds total $1,000 to $5,000, they are allowed to roll your plan into an IRA on your behalf.
Either way, your old employer should be able to confirm whether they sent you a check or otherwise provide details about how to access your new IRA account.
However, sometimes employers merge with other companies, or the company you once worked at no longer exists. This can make tracking down a stray 401(k) plan more difficult.
Fortunately, there are searchable databases you can use to find old 401(k) plans you may have forgotten about.
You can start with the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a secure site that allows you to search for lost plans using your Social Security number. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators also operates a database that lets you search for plans by your first and last name.
If you think your employer rolled over your 401(k) into an IRA, you can use FreeERISA to track it down. If you’re still not having luck, the Department of Labor’s abandoned plan database might offer some updated information on plans that have been or are about to be discontinued.
Once you’ve located your plan, you can stick with what you have or ask the plan’s administrator for a direct rollover to your new employer’s plan. You can cash it out, too, but you’ll face income taxes on those funds, as well as a 10% withdrawal penalty if you’re younger than 59½.