How to find your old 401k account

"I used to work at XXX Company about 7 years ago and never did anything with my 401k. Do you have it or can you help?"

This is a question we receive frequently when meeting with employees about their 401k plan. Hopefully this guide will help you know better where to go and what to do to retrieve your old 401k account or provide guidance to employees who are asking for your help in finding their old account.

First, you should know more about how this works. We're advisors. We help companies when they need advice on their 401k plan. While we help on some plans, we aren't hired by every company. We can provide a lot of help to the employees of the company that hired us, but we can only give general help to those where we were never involved in their employer's plan.

It's uncommon for the advisors on the plan to actually hold the money -- there's a recordkeeper involved. That recordkeeper is the one that sends you statements and is responsible for tracking all money held at mutual fund companies or other investment houses for your plan's benefit. This could be Fidelity, Principal, Great West, Putnam, John Hancock, Aspire, Verisight, Schwab, JP Morgan, T Rowe Price, or any of the dozens of other retirement plan recordkeepers out there.

There might be one more party involved - the third party administrator. They are responsible for everything having to do with the plan document and the IRS requirements for the plan. They could be the same company as the recordkeeper or they could be different. Start with directing questions to the recordkeeper. They'll tell you if you need to contact a third party administrator or not and will have their contact information.

Now, if you have a 401k plan that you left behind at an old job, here's what you'll need to do to track that money down:

1) Find an old statement. Locate the 800# on it and call the recordkeeper. Tell them where you used to work, give them the plan number if you can find it on the statement, and any other identifiable information. They can look you up, or tell you if the recordkeeper changed and they no longer handle the plan.

If you can't find an old statement, or if you called the number on your old statement and they said they don't handle the plan anymore, call the Human Resources or benefits office of the company where you used to work. They can give you information on where to find your account and they may even have the forms you'll need if you know you want to transfer the money elsewhere.

2) We'd encourage you to roll the money over to an IRA or your new 401k and avoid cashing out. (This money was saved for retirement and you'll likely pay taxes and penalties if you take it in cash, plus you're short changing your future.) In order to do that, you'll need to tell the recordkeeper how to make out the check and the address of where they need to send it. So, take a step back. If you know you want to roll the money over, go ahead and reach out to your new 401k provider at your new job or to the financial institution you want to hold your IRA. Get that information first before you call the recordkeeper.

3) It's important to know that there is no centralized database of all 401k accounts in the US.  If you're completely stumped or maybe the company you used to work for went out of business you can try these to attempt to locate it:

https://www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com/ - nationwide, secure database listing of retirement plan account balances that have been left unclaimed

http://askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/ - find out whether a particular plan is in the process of being, or has been, terminated and the contact responsible for the termination

https://www.efast.dol.gov/portal/app/disseminate?execution=e1s1 - Plans are required to file a tax filing called a Form 5500 every year. You can enter the company information and see if they filed, and then on the filing will be the plan contact's information. This can be helpful if you know the company you used to work for was sold to someone else, but you're not sure who to contact.

4) If you aren't sure if you contributed or the recordkeeper is telling you that you don't have a balance in that plan, verify that you actually contributed to a 401k. To do so, go back to your previous year tax returns and look at your W-2s. If you made a 401k contribution, the amount will appear in Box 12 of the W-2.

Two notes of caution:

When you leave your 401k behind, you essentially don't have a whole lot of control over it. The company you used to work for can decide to move recordkeepers, change out investments, and charge your account additional fees for no longer being actively employed by them. Plus, many people move and forget to update their address. Your statements may not find your new home! Try your best to roll over your retirement plan within a couple of months of leaving your job so you don't have to spend a lot of time and energy tracking down those old accounts!If your balance is less than $1,000 many plans will notify you that you have 45 days to do something with your balance, and then automatically cash you out and send you a check. Additionally, if you have a balance between $1,000 and $5,000 the employer may notify you, give you 45 days to do something, and then will automatically roll your balance to an IRA provider. This is allowed! Don't ignore your mail! If you don't respond, they'll make the decision for you.

Hope that this helps you track down your old 401k money or gives you the tools to help your employees!