Are You Missing a 401(k) Plan? How to Find and Convert Old Retirement Accounts

If you've changed jobs and left a 401(k) behind, learn how to get your money back.

Peter Butler Writer
Peter is a writer and editor for the CNET How-To team. He has been covering technology, software, finance, sports and video games since working for @Home Network and Excite in the 1990s. Peter managed reviews and listings for Download.com during the 2000s, and is passionate about software and no-nonsense advice for creators, consumers and investors.
Expertise 18 years of editorial experience with a current focus on personal finance and moving
Peter Butler
4 min read
401(k) written on a piece of paper on top of scattered $100 bills

The status of your 401(k) account will depend on how much money is in it.

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Changing employment can be an exciting and stressful time. With everything you need to do when you switch jobs, it's possible to forget about dealing with a 401(k) plan from your soon-to-be former employer. A study by the fintech company Capitalize found that there were 24.3 million forgotten 401(k) accounts holding $1.35 trillion as of May 2021, with another 2.8 million lost accounts added each year.

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That money isn't gone, however. Most of it is still sitting in those accounts, waiting for someone to claim it. Depending on your former employer and the size of your account, you can likely find your old retirement account and roll it over into a new 401(k) or an individual retirement account.

Learn how to locate your old 401(k) account, and what to do after you find it. For more, discover the easiest way to save for retirement and how to figure out the best time to start receiving Social Security.

What happens to forgotten 401(k) plans?

The state of your misplaced 401(k) account depends on how much money you have in it.

If a 401(k) account for a former employee holds less than $1,000, the company is allowed to cash it out and send a check to your mailing address. If you've moved, contact your former company to see if a check was sent. If you can't contact your former employer, you'll need to reach out to the new residents at your old address or search your state's database for unclaimed property.

If your account had a balance of $1,000 to $5,000, your former employer is allowed to transfer your funds into a new IRA. Again, contact your old company to learn how to access that new account.

Accounts holding more than $5,000 are still likely to be managed by the 401(k) plan administrator of your former company.

How can you find your old 401(k) account?

Now that you know what you're looking for, here's how to track down a lost account.

Start by calling the human resources department of your former company. Ask for the contact information -- name, phone number and email address -- of the 401(k) plan administrator, and then reach out to the administrator to ask about your old account. Be patient and persistent.

If your company no longer exists, it gets a little harder. Start by searching your records for old 401(k) statements. If you're living at the same address, you could still be receiving statements if the account is active.

If you don't live at the same address and can't find any old statements, it gets even trickier, but don't give up. There are several ways to search for abandoned 401(k) accounts online:

  • Start with the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a free, nationwide database maintained by Penchecks Trust. All you need to provide is your Social Security number.
  • If that doesn't work, try FreeERISA, a database of Employee Retirement Income Security Act form 5500s, which are annual benefit reports that companies must file every year. You have to register to use the site, but it's free. FreeERISA might also be able to help you find a 401(k) that's been rolled over into an IRA.
  • Finally, the Department of Labor has a few search tools that can help, including its own form 5500 search and an abandoned plan database, which contains information about 401(k) plans that have been terminated.

What can you do with your old 401(k) account once you find it?

Once you've located your 401(k) account from a former employer, you have a few choices about what you do with your money.

Roll it over into your current 401(k): Most 401(k) accounts can be "rolled over," meaning that the funds in them can be transferred to another retirement account. If your current employer offers a 401(k) that allows rollovers, you can shift your funds from your old account to your new one and enjoy a nice bump in your balance.

Roll it over into an IRA: If your current employer doesn't offer a 401(k) plan or doesn't allow rollovers, you can transfer the money from your old 401(k) into an existing or new IRA.

Pro tip: If your old 401(k) provider wants to roll over your funds by sending you a paper check, make sure you communicate that you want a direct rollover with a check made out to your new 401(k) provider or IRA institution. If the check is made out to you personally, that could trigger a required 20% withholding for taxes and potential IRS penalty.

Cash it out: You can take the funds from your forgotten 401(k) and turn it into money you can spend now, but you'll pay a big penalty. The IRS will tax your distribution and charge you 10% of your 401(k) balance for cashing out before age 59 and six months (with a few limited exceptions).

Leave it with your former company: If your 401(k) account balance is more than $5,000, many companies will allow former employees to keep their old 401(k) plans active, though you can't make contributions anymore. When you reach retirement age, you can use the money from that 401(k) like any other retirement account. 

Leaving it with your old employer might be a reasonable decision if you don't like your new company's plan, but you'll be left with the complications of managing multiple 401(k)s instead of one.

Whatever you decide to do with your forgotten 401(k), just make sure you find it first. Even if you have a small account, the power of investing and compound interest could make it valuable by the time you retire.

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