How to locate a 401(k) from a previous job

How to locate a 401(k) from a previous job


If you’re trying to locate an old 401(k) plan from a previous job, you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. Roughly $850 million in plan assets owned by 33,000 employees are “orphaned” each year, held by a financial institution without an employer to oversee the plan [1]. That’s a lot of money being left on the table—roughly two percent of all 401(k) plan assets.

The good news is that the Department of Labor has established rules for protecting money put into a 401(k), so the money isn’t necessarily lost—just waiting for someone to claim it. However, that doesn’t mean your old 401(k) account will always be easy to track down. It may take some digging, but there are a variety of ways you can find it.

How to find your 401(k) from past jobs

1. Contact previous employers

It may seem obvious, but one of the quickest ways to track down an old 401(k) plan is to go directly to the source. If you aren’t sure who to contact about finding your missing account, talking to the person who handled company benefits or the human resources department should be good places to start.

2. Review past W-2 tax forms

Unsure which of your past jobs you even had a 401(k) account with? You’re not out of luck. Check out your old W-2 tax forms; the forms will list the employer you had a retirement plan with that year. Use the information on your old W-2 to contact your plan sponsor, or old employer, directly to get your account information.

3. Check your mail

It’s possible you’ve been receiving updates on your old 401(k) and didn’t even realize it. Even after leaving a job, companies will often continue mailing out quarterly or yearly statements to participants on the status of their account. You can use the information on these documents to contact your old employer directly for information about your 401(k) plan.

4. Search The National Registry

Still not having any luck? Past employers may list you as a missing participant if you no longer work for the company but left your 401(k) behind. The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits is a nationwide, secure database listing retirement plan account balances that have been left unclaimed [2].

5. Search Form 5500 directory

All employers that provide 401(k) plans to their employees are required to fill out a 5500 form every year with the DOL. Websites like FreeERISA* allow users to search by company name to locate the correct Form 5500. Another option is to search the DOL’s 5500 databaseBoth simple searches will provide you with additional contact information. 

For further assistance in finding lost 401(k) plans, the U.S. Department of Labor has an Abandoned Plan Search, which helps participants and others find out whether a particular plan is in the process of being—or already has been—terminated. The name of the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for the termination will be listed as well, giving you a good idea of who to contact [3].

But beware: some companies, even legitimate ones, can acquire your information about unclaimed retirement accounts and offer to assist you with your search, often with a percentage fee for their services.

When it comes to planning and saving for retirement, it’s vital to have all your assets accounted for. Locating an old 401(k) plan is like finding cash in the pocket of an old pair of jeans. It’s money you forgot you had but are happy you found. So if you know you’ve contributed funds to a 401(k) account but can’t figure out where those funds are, the resources listed above may help you find past retirement accounts that may have been “lost” along your employment journey.

* FreeERISA (http://freeerisa.benefitspro.com) is free resource, however you will need to register and then login to search their database.