Tracking down financial assets for retirement
January 1, 2022 | View PDF
I grouse about how my husband loses things, but he’s also a great finder. He uncovers his keys, his glasses, and his wallet nearly every week. Recently, though, he found a 25-year-old retirement account. It wouldn’t have changed our retirement, but any more money in the bank is nice as we check the last boxes for retirement.
We began our final financial review with our online Social Security statements. We had checked them periodically, of course, but this time were a little more thoughtful. My husband remembered a small 401(k) his consulting partner set up back in the 1990s. The senior partner couldn’t set aside funds for himself without setting up an account for my husband, so it was opened with a small contribution. He changed jobs a couple years after that. “What ever happened to that little account?” he now wondered.
Finding and consolidating individual and retirement accounts is an important part of retirement preparation. Your main sources of future income will be familiar by this time, but you may have lost track of retirement accounts from employers in your early years. This is the time to take a detailed trip down memory lane to discover errant funds so that you can simplify and combine accounts for your retirement years.
Did you work summers as a student where you or your employer contributed to a retirement account? Have you moved at some point and forgotten about or given up on an insurance or other sort of payment that was owed you? Who might be holding your funds?
A good first step is accessing the Social Security website, where you can view the official list that the federal government is using to track your earnings and contributions. Check out any missing years or employers. Summer or part-time jobs may no longer be relevant for your Social Security check alongside a long career record, but they may spark a memory of other retirement contributions. I received a letter from Social Security titled “Potential Private Retirement Benefit Information” which prompted me to check on any pension with my first post-college employer.
With your complete list of lifetime employers in hand, review your retirement assets and match accounts to employers and careers. The relative convenience of online records may allow you to do some tracking online that would have required months and dozens of letters and phone calls in our early working years. For instance, you may be able to trace a rollover from an old to new employer by when the newer account bumped up significantly.
If you find a gap, you can work methodically to discover the dispensation of funds. For an errant 401(k) account, start with that employer. Schwab describes the process when the employer no longer exists: “Contact the plan administrator. If you don’t know the name of the plan administrator, search the Department of Labor website for the company’s Form 5500 (5500search.dol.gov), which will list their contact information.” You can also search for unclaimed pensions at: Pensions from Former Employers.
Sometimes insurance companies hold money from disbursements when they can’t locate the owner. Perhaps you are owed money from a personal lawsuit, or you were a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit whose payout never found its way to you.
When financial institutions cannot find the owners of accounts within three years, they are required by federal law to relinquish the money to the appropriate state.
The federal government does not maintain a database of unclaimed funds. Each state holds the funds according to its own rules. According to SmartAsset.com, “New York State had by far the largest total of unclaimed property, and its rate of unclaimed property per capita was nearly twice that of the number two state, Massachusetts.”
You can pay someone to seek unclaimed property for you, but the information is available for free on the government’s Unclaimed Money website. This site provides leads on uncovering VA insurance claims, FHA mortgage funds, tax refunds, bank failure deposit money, treasury bills, unclaimed bankruptcy funds, and much more.
You can start a general search with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Links on the site point you to various states’ unclaimed property sites as well as the VA, IRS, and other potential sources. Since rules vary by state, carefully note the detailed instructions on each application.
In the case of my husband’s missing 401(k), a little sleuthing resulted in the anticlimactic answer that he had rolled it over into a larger tax-deferred account in a previous consolidation effort. Nevertheless, I was grateful that he searched. In his advancing years, his frustrating track record of losing stuff is now matched by his unerring ability to find them, eventually.
As I age alongside him, I find myself using his finder services to great effect. Whether it’s an iPad, an earring, or a bank account set up to take advantage of an offer of free flight miles, he will track it down. It’s a job from which I hope he never retires!
Karen Telleen-Lawton is a retired financial planner and advisor and writes about economics, finances and the environment.