What happens to money left in an old 401(k)?
A big part of personal finance, and financial wellness more directly, is keeping track of all your accounts. If you’ve ever had a 401(k) account with an employer and lost track of it after you’ve left, you’re definitely not alone.
We estimate that there are over 25 million ‘orphaned’ 401(k) accounts (sometimes called “employer-sponsored plans”) just like yours. These are accounts tied to former employers that continue to have money in them but are not actively being monitored or used.
At Capitalize, we help people find these old, orphaned 401(k) accounts and consolidate them into a new retirement account — for free. This helps them better keep track of their retirement savings over time.
The retirement funds you’ve put away in your 401(k) savings account (or another similar qualified retirement plan) remain yours even after you’ve left that job. Most of the time it’s still at the same financial institution that managed it while you had it.
This financial institution is known as a “401(k) provider”. It’s a company engaged by your former employer to hold and manage your 401(k) assets. You can see a full list of 401(k) providers here.
Some of the time, though, your money has been transferred to a new institution — this can impact all former employees of a particular organization. That generally happens in one of three cases:
- Your former employer changes their 401(k) provider — when this happens your 401(k) account will be transferred over to the new institution.
- Your former employer is acquired by another company — when this happens your account usually gets transferred to the 401(k) provider used by the acquiring company.
- Your old plan account balance was under $5,000 and was transferred to an IRA at a different institution — this is known as a “forced rollover” and is allowed by some 401(k) plans.
How to quickly find old 401(k) accounts
To locate your old 401(k), follow the steps below.
1. Contact your old employer
If you’ve recently left your job or still have contact with your old employer, reaching out to their Human Resources department (HR department) is a quick way to determine where your old 401(k) account might be. Your previous employer should be able to give you the name and contact information of the 401(k) plan administrator so you can reach out directly to them.
If you left your former employer many years ago or the company’s been acquired by another, this may prove to be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead, try one of the other options below to find your 401(k).
2. Look for old 401(k) paperwork
Many 401(k) providers send physical mail annually or quarterly. You may have received this correspondence if you haven’t moved since you left your job. Often, these statements can give you information on contacting your 401(k) provider and how much money you have in the account.
3. Use a 401(k) lookup database
The Capitalize team has created a database and search tool to help locate a missing 401(k) account. Simply input your company name below to get started. It also helps to have your Social Security number (SSN) handy in the event it’s connected to an old retirement plan.
Usually, we can locate the account instantly. If we can’t, our in-house team will track it down for you and help you move into an account of your choice.
Other databases also enable you to look for unclaimed property, like the Employee Benefits Security Administration’s Abandoned Plan Search and the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. The abandoned plan database was created by the Department of Labor (DOL) to help people locate their left-behind retirement plans. You can also check your state’s unclaimed property database to see if any old accounts of yours have been located.
One of these databases may be able to reveal the location of your old account.
4. Let Capitalize find your old 401(k) account
The Capitalize team specializes in locating missing 401(k)s. With some information from you, Capitalize can track down your old 401(k)s and help you move the funds into the account you choose.