As the weather cools and the nights lengthen, you may be on the lookout for a lumbering figure from your professional past. We’re not talking about mummified managers, vampiric VPs, or legal department lagoon creatures; we’re talking about your “zombie” retirement accounts. With over 24 million “forgotten” 401(k) accounts holding roughly $1.35 trillion in assets, even the most organized professional may be surprised to learn of their unclaimed “found” money.1
What are "Zombified" Retirement Accounts
Considering that baby boomers alone have worked an average of 12 jobs in their lifetime, it can be all too easy for retirement accounts to get lost in the shuffle. Think back to your first job. Can you remember what happened to your work-sponsored retirement plan? If you’re even slightly unsure, then it’s time to go looking for your potential “undead” funds. Once an account has been found, that’s when the real fun begins. However, there are some rules around what you can do with your newly resuscitated account, depending on the type of account.2
Undead Account Types
Before we get into your search, let’s review the types of work-sponsored retirement accounts available. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but the following are the most commonly found retirement accounts.
This is a company-sponsored retirement plan that allows employees to contribute a portion of their wages to individual accounts. Some employer plans include automatic enrollment for new employees, so it’s possible you may have contributed money without being aware of it.3
This is a retirement vehicle offered by public schools and certain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Just as with a 401(k) plan, a 403(b) plan lets employees defer some of their salary into individual accounts. The deferred salary is generally not subject to federal or state income tax until it’s distributed. If you’ve ever been employed by a public school, college, university, church, or non-profit, you may have been offered a chance to participate.4
Define Benefit Plans
These are sometimes known as traditional pensions, which promise the participant a specified monthly benefit at retirement. Often, the benefit is based on factors such as the participant’s salary, age, and number of years worked for the employer.5
Once you reach age 72, you must begin taking required minimum distributions from your 401(k), 403(b) or other defined-contribution plans in most circumstances. Withdrawals from defined-contribution plans are taxed as ordinary income and, if taken before age 59½, may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty.
Starting Your Hunt
One of the best ways to find lost retirement accounts is to contact your former employers. If you’re unsure where to direct your call, the human resources or accounting department should be able to check their plan records to see if you’ve ever participated. However, you will most likely be asked to provide your full name, Social Security number, and the dates you worked, so be sure you come prepared.
If your former employer is no longer around, look for an old 401k statement. Often these will have the contact information for the plan administrator. If you don’t have an old statement, consider reaching out to former coworkers who may have the information you need.
Even if these first steps don’t turn up much info, they can help you gather important information for your next steps.
Website to Wander
Next, it’s time to take your search online. Make sure you have as much information as possible at hand, and give the following resources a try.
National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
(https://unclaimedretirementbenefits.com/) – This database uses employer and Department of Labor data to determine if you have any unpaid or lost retirement account money. Like most of these online tools, you’ll need to provide your Social Security number, but no additional information is required.6
(https://freeerisa.benefitspro.com/) – If your zombie account was worth more than $1,000 but less than $5,000, it might have been rolled into a default traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Employers create default IRAs when a former employee can’t be located or fails to respond when contacted. You can search for 401k and IRA accounts for free using this database, but registration is required.7 Once you reach age 72 you must begin taking required minimum distributions from a traditional IRA in most circumstances. Withdrawals from traditional IRAs are taxed as ordinary income and, if taken before age 59½, may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty.
The U.S. Department of Labor
(www.askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/) – Finally, the department of labor tracks plans that have been abandoned or are in the process of being terminated. Try searching their database to find the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for directing the shutdown of the plan.8
Once you’ve found your retirement account, what you do with it depends on the type of plan and where it’s held. Your location also matters. Depending on where you live, rules and regulations may differ.
No matter what you decide to do, be sure to involve your tax and financial professional for the most up-to-date regulations for your state. They can also help you identify a purpose for your newfound money — vacations, further retirement savings, that second home you’ve always wanted, or whatever else you can dream of. You worked hard for that newfound money after all — you should enjoy it!
1. Kiplinger.com, August 27, 2021
2. Money.usnews.com, October 22, 2021
3. IRS.gov, 2022
4. IRS.gov, 2022
5. IRS.gov, 2022
6. Unclaimedretirementbenefits.com, 2022
7. Freeerisa.benefitspro, 2022
8. Askebsa.dol.gov, 2022
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