How to find old 401(k) accounts

How to find old 401(k) accounts

01.04.2024

Many private sector employers offer 401(k) plans to help their employees save for retirement. But considering that most people don’t stay at a job for their entire career, what happens with that money when we leave our employer?

The good news is that any money you’ve contributed to your 401(k) plan, as well as any vested employer contributions, are yours to keep. Unfortunately, many people leave their retirement dollars in their previous employer’s 401(k) plan, only to forget about it or lose track of it later.

The problem is more pervasive than you might expect. One 2023 study by Capitalize estimated that more than 29 million 401(k) accounts have been left behind with former employers, and those accounts add up to more than $1.65% trillion.1

If you’re among the many people who have left 401(k) accounts behind with former employers, know that money isn’t lost. There are steps you can take to track down your old 401(k) accounts and move that money into a current account to ensure you’re able to keep track of it.

Reasons to find old 401(k) accounts

If you have old 401(k) accounts that you’ve lost track of, it’s imperative that you track them down. You can still decide to leave the money in those accounts —more on your options later — but at the very least, you should know where all of your retirement dollars are and how to manage them.

There are several important reasons to track down your old 401(k) accounts. First, your 401(k) plan is filled with your hard-earned money that is meant to help pay for your retirement. By letting those dollars go, not only are you losing money, but you’re also robbing your future self of income during retirement.

Finding your old 401(k) accounts also allows you to have ultimate control over the money. You can assess the fees and investment options in the current account and compare those with other accounts you could roll the money into. If you decide to keep the money in your old 401(k), at least you know it’s the best financial decision.

Finally, tracking down your old 401(k) accounts ensures you can access that money if and when you need it. Ideally, you won’t have to touch your 401(k) dollars until you retire. And when that happens, you want them to be as easy as possible to access.

However, in the event that you have to take early retirement withdrawals, perhaps in case of a financial emergency, you want them to be somewhere you can access them quickly.

Ways to find an old 401(k)

If you have old 401(k) accounts that you’ve lost track of, there are a few strategies you can use to track them down.

Contact your former employer

The easiest way to find an old 401(k) account is to contact your former employer. In most cases, the company you previously worked for is probably still up and running, and likely even still uses the same 401(k) provider. The account administrator can help you track down your account and either give you access to your account or help you roll it over to a new account.

Read more: What happens to your 401(k) if you quit your job?

Review old financial documents

Another option to help you find an old 401(k) plan is to review your old financial documents. If you retain documents for your records, then you may have account statements and other documents directly from your plan administrator.

The documents you find may give you all the information you need to access your old 401(k). If that’s not the case, you can contact the plan administrator, who will help you access your account.

Utilize online tools and resources

You may be surprised how effective online resources can be in helping you find an old 401(k) plan. First, even a simple Google search can help you get at least some of the information you need. For example, if you previously worked for a large company, you may be able to find out from a simple online search what provider houses its 401(k) plan.

There are other online resources that can help you track down an old 401(k) with even less information. There are companies that specialize in helping people find and roll over their old 401(k) balances.

For example, Capitalize is a popular online provider that manages 401(k) rollovers for free. And if you aren’t sure where your old 401(k) is, Capitalize can find it as long as you share the company you worked for.2

Another online resource to consider is FreeERISA. This company compiles forms that companies have filed with the Department of Labor relating to retirement plans, health insurance, and other benefits. These filings can help you identify your former employer’s 401(k) provider so that you can contact it directly.3

Check online databases

There are several online databases, most run by government organizations, that can help you track down missing money, including your retirement dollars. Here are a few examples:

  • Unclaimed property database: Each state has an unclaimed property database where you can track down financial assets that belong to you. In most cases, you’ll simply search with your first and last name. If any unclaimed property is in the database, you’ll provide documentation to prove the money is yours before you can receive it.
  • National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits: This database holds listings of retirement plan benefits that were left unclaimed by their owners. You can search the database using your Social Security number.4
  • Department of Labor Abandoned Plan Program: The Abandoned Plan Program is a database filled with retirement plans that no longer have a sponsor or administrator. These are plans that have been abandoned by employers, meaning they may be more difficult for former employees to track down. You can search the Abandoned Plan Program by the employer’s name.5
  • U.S. Pension Guaranty Corporation database of unclaimed retirement benefits: This database is for those retirement benefits that have been abandoned by participants and transferred to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation for safekeeping. You can search this database using your Social Security number.6

Work with a financial professional

If you’re having trouble tracking down your old 401(k) plans or don’t have time to search for them yourself, consider enlisting the help of a financial professional. You’ll provide as much information as you can, including your Social Security number and information about your former employers and plans, and a financial professional will use it to track down your former plans.

Keep in mind that if you’ve already used all of the tools above and haven’t had success in finding your old 401(k) plans, a financial professional may have similarly bad luck. However, they may still be able to suggest methods you haven’t tried or that we haven’t discussed here.

Weighing the benefits: What to do with your old 401(k)

Once you find your old 401(k) plan, you’ll have to decide what to do with it. You have several options, including leaving the money where it is, rolling it over into a new retirement account, or cashing it out altogether.

Read more: What to do with your 401(k) when you leave your job

Keep your 401(k) with your former employer

First, you can decide to keep your 401(k) balance with your former employer. While not all employers allow former employees to do this, most large companies do. The benefit of this method is that you don’t have to worry about a rollover.

You might choose to leave your 401(k) where it is if your current plan administrator has particular low fees or attractive investment options. However, it’s not the best choice for most people. After all, you can’t continue contributing to the account, and it’s easy to lose track of multiple former retirement accounts.

If you do decide to leave your 401(k) where it is, it’s essential to keep thorough records and ensure you always know how to access the money.

Rollover your 401(k)

Another option is to roll your 401(k) balance into a different retirement plan, either an individual retirement account (IRA) or your 401(k) plan with your current employer.

There’s really no downside to this option. You have easier access to the plan, as well as the ability to continue building your balance. Additionally, if you transfer the funds to an IRA, you can guarantee yourself low fees and a wide variety of investment options.

There’s also no tax consequence to rolling over your 401(k) balance, as long as you follow IRS rules for depositing the money into your new account in a timely manner.7

Read more: 401(k) rollover options

Cash out your 401(k)

Your final option when you locate your old 401(k) is to cash out the account. However, this isn’t advisable. Not only are you robbing your future self of hard-earned retirement dollars, but you’ll also be subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty on the entire balance — and that’s on top of any ordinary income taxes that apply.8

Assessing the 401(k) account balance

When you leave a job, it’s up to you decide what to do with your existing 401(k) balance. Whether you’re keeping the money in the current account (if your employer allows it) or rolling it over to a different account, it’s your responsibility to communicate that to the plan administrator.

If you fail to make an election regarding your 401(k) balance at your former employer, the employer has some options:9

  1. The plan administrator can allow your retirement dollars to remain in the company 401(k) plan. And if your account has more than $5,000 ($7,000, for distributions made after December 31, 2024)10, the company must do this.
  2. If the account balance is between $1,000 and $5,000 ($7,000, for distributions made after December 31, 2024), the company may roll the balance over into an IRA in your name. Because the money is still in a tax-advantaged retirement account, there are no tax consequences. You can access the money and either leave it in the IRA set up by the plan administrator or roll it over into a different IRA.
  3. If the account balance is less than $1,000, the company can choose to cash out the account. You’ll receive a check for the full balance, minus 20% withheld for income taxes. You can deposit the money into a different retirement account within 60 days to avoid tax consequences.

The bottom line

401(k) plans are among the most powerful retirement savings tools thanks to their tax advantages, high contribution limits, potential for matching contributions, and more. However, it’s easy to lose track of a 401(k) when you leave your job. Unfortunately, that could result in years of retirement savings being lost.

The good news is that even if you have lost track of your old 401(k) plans, there are still ways to find them. By contacting your former employer, reviewing your old records, taking advantage of online resources, or searching among the many databases available, you can track down your retirement dollars and transfer them into an account where you can easily keep track of them.

If you have 401(k) dollars with former employers and haven’t rolled them into a current retirement account, track them down today and decide on your next steps.

Get the scoop on your money.

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  1. Capitalize. “The True Cost of Forgotten 401(k) Accounts (2023).” December 2023.
  2. Capitalize. “How It Works.” December 2023.
  3. FreeERISA. “About.” December 2023.
  4. National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. December 2023.
  5. Department of Labor. “FAQs About The Abandoned Plan Program.” December 2023.
  6. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. “Find unclaimed retirement benefits.”  December 2023.
  7. IRS. “Rollovers of Retirement Plan and IRA Distributions.” December 2023.
  8. IRS. “401(k) Resource Guide - Plan Participants - General Distribution Rules.” December 2023.
  9. IRS. “Rollovers of Retirement Plan and IRA Distributions.” December 2023.
  10. United States Senate Committee on Finance. “SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, Title I — Expanding Coverage and Increasing Retirement Savings.” December 2023.

The Currency editors

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