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How do I find my old 401(k)?

| March 19, 2015
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One of the most commonly asked questions that I get regarding retirement plans is how find a 401(k) or other retirement plan from an old employer in years past, or from an employer that has gone out of business.

The first thing that you need to do is, if you can, find any documentation that may reflect participation in a plan, or reflects an account number. It will be helpful if you have some documentation. If you have any information, there may be a phone number for the record keeper or third party administrator... you will want to contact anyone, but want to end up with the third party administrator.

If your employer is still in business, or has merged with another company, you will need to check with Human Resources with your old company, or it's acquiring company. You will need to explain to that person that you participated in a plan 'x' years ago, and that you are attempting to locate the 'third party administrator' or 'TPA'. The third party administrator, as the name implies, administers the plan. Because the person that you are talking to at Human Resources may or may not have been in grade school (or even born) when you participated in this plan, you may need to be patient with them as they try to grasp your situation. If they are not understanding at all, it may make sense to politely end the call, and try calling back at another time with the hopes of speaking to someone else that may be more helpful. You are the one that needs this information, and it is incumbent on you to be patient and persevere.

So, what do you do if your employer is no longer in business. Here are 2 important links; If you participated in a 401(k), just go to the Dept of Labor's website for abandoned plans at http://askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/ If you had a Defined Benefit, or Pension Plan, go to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp's website http://search.pbgc.gov/mp/mp.aspx where with luck, you should be able to find your account.

If your balance is less than $5,000, the plan can force a distribution; if they do not have your current address, it could wind up in your state's 'Unclaimed or Abandoned Asset' account. Check with your state's unclaimed funds account anyway; you never know what will pop up.

If you find the TPA, you want to update your contact information so that they have your correct address. They probably have an online portal where you can review your account and make changes. To do any sort of transfer, you will need a copy of a recent statement.

In most instances, when someone finds an old account, they would want to do a 'direct transfer' to an IRA, either an existing one, or to open one and transfer it. To make a direct transfer, or any distribution, you will need your most recent statement. If the employer is still in business, you may be required to have Human Resources 'sign off' with a distribution form. This indicates to the TPA that all monies are vested and the employer has no claims against you.  If you ticked someone of at HR trying to get a phone number for the TPA, this is likely when you will regret it if you now need to ask that person to sign a form.

There are reasons why you specifically would or would not want to transfer out of an old retirement plan. If you have a 401(k) and you are separated from employment, you can take distributions without penalty at age 55 1/2; if you transfer to an IRA, you would not be able to take a distribution without penalty until age 59 1/2. otherwise, most of the time, you will have better control of investments and fees if you transfer to an IRA. If you have less than $5000 in your account, sooner or later they will likely force a distribution, and you would be better off if you transferred it on your own terms.  Consult a financial professional, preferably a CFP® for advice. If you do not have one, ask trusted friends, neighbors co-workers for a referral.

You would typically want to make a direct transfer; that is have the funds transferred from the retirement plan to the custodian of your IRA i.e; 'X' Mutual Fund Company or 'Y' Brokerage firm. If they mail a check in your name, it is considered a distribution. You have 60 days to undo it, but it is wiser to do it properly the first time.

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