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Millions of forgotten 401(k) retirement accounts are begging to be claimed. As of May 2021, an estimated 24.3 million 401(k)s holding $1.35 trillion in assets had been left behind by people who changed jobs, according to financial services company Capitalize.
If you've lost track of an old 401(k), what do you do? Well, don't panic. To find an old 401(k), start by searching your files, then contact your former employer's HR department and check with your state's unclaimed property agency.
1. Look Through Your Documents
Your first step should be to look through your documents, either in paper or electronic form. Old 401(k) statements contain information that can help you locate the account. Look for the account number, as well as the name and contact information of the plan administrator that runs the 401(k) you participated in.
2. Contact Your Former Employer's HR Department
Another way to locate an old 401(k) is to contact your former employer's HR department. The department should be able to tell you the name of the plan administrator along with the contact information.
If that ends up reuniting you with the old 401(k), you can leave the account with your former employer, roll it over into an individual retirement account (IRA), roll it over into your current employer's 401(k) or cash out the account.
So, what if your former employer is no longer in business or you aren't able to track them down? The money should be somewhere. You just need to hunt for it. One place to look is the federal government's Abandoned Plan database.
3. Search Your State's Unclaimed Property
Still no luck finding your old 401(k)? Visit the website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. There, you can search by state. Once you click on your state on the site's interactive map, you'll be directed to the state agency that handles unclaimed property.
And if you've lived in several states, you can conduct a multistate search for an old 401(k) at MissingMoney.com, which is endorsed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
Once you find your old 401(k), you can start the process of filing a claim for the account.
What Should You Do With an Old 401(k)?
If you've found your old 401(k), congratulations. But the work doesn't stop there. Now, you need to decide what to do with the account. Here are four options.
1. Leave It With Your Former Employer
Some employers will let you leave your old 401(k) with them. However, doing so might limit what you can do with the money. For instance, you won't be able to add money to the account, and you might not be able to take out a loan against the 401(k).
Also, you might be able to withdraw only the entire balance, rather than just some of the money. The good news here, though, is that you can make withdrawals without a financial penalty if you left the employer when you were at least 55 years old.
2. Roll It Over Into Your Current Employer's 401(k)
Another option is rolling the old 401(k) into your current employer's 401(k). This can make it easier to keep track of your retirement accounts and might open up broader investment choices. But be sure you're aware of how your current employer's 401(k) works before transferring money from your old 401(k) into it.
3. Roll It Over Into an IRA
You also might choose to roll over the 401(k) into an IRA at a financial institution. This is known as a rollover IRA. Before picking a financial institution, be sure to look into the fees and other costs associated with the IRA.
One potential advantage of a rollover IRA is that you might gain access to a wider variety of investment options than the employer-sponsored account offered. Furthermore, you're able to take money out of the IRA before age 59½ without being charged penalties if you're covering college expenses or if you're buying an eligible first-time home.
4. Cash It Out
Cashing out the old 401(k) is the least attractive option. Why? Because you could end up paying income tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty when you pull all of the money out of the old 401(k).
However, you can avoid the early withdrawal penalty if you left your former employer either during the year you turned 55 or after that, but you haven't yet hit age 59½. The penalty still kicks in if you roll over money from the old 401(k) into an IRA.
The Bottom Line
If you've lost track of an old 401(k), you can take several steps to find it: Search your documents, reach out to your former employer's HR department or check with your state's unclaimed property agency. But that might be the easy part. The tough part might be deciding what to do with an old 401(k), from leaving it with your former employer to cashing it out. You may want to visit with your financial advisor or tax advisor to explore the tax consequences of each option.