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Find That Lost 401(k)! Thumbnail

Find That Lost 401(k)!

Do you have a long-lost retirement account left with a former employer? Maybe it's been so long that you can't even remember?

With over 24 million "forgotten" 401(k) accounts holding roughly $1.35 trillion in assets, even the most organized professional may be surprised to learn of their unclaimed "found" money.

Considering that baby boomers (those born from 1946 to 1964) have worked an average of 12 jobs in their lifetime, it can be all too easy for retirement accounts to get lost in the shuffle.2 Think back to your first job offering these benefits. Can you remember what happened to your work-sponsored retirement plan? If you're even slightly unsure, then it's time to go looking for your potential "forgotten" funds. 

Retirement Plan Account Types 

Before we get into your search, let's review the types of work-sponsored retirement accounts available. By no means is this an exhaustive list, but the following are the most commonly-found retirement accounts. 

  • 401(k) - This is a company-sponsored retirement plan that allows employees to contribute a portion of their wages to individual accounts. Some employer plans include automatic enrollment for new employees, so it's possible you may have contributed money without being aware of it.3 
  • 403(b)/401(a) - This is a retirement vehicle offered by public schools and certain 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. Just as with a 401(k) plan, a 403(b) or 401(a) plan lets employees defer some of their salary into individual accounts. The deferred salary is generally not subject to federal or state income tax until it's distributed. If you've ever been employed by a public school, college, university, church or non-profit, you may have been offered a chance to participate.4
  • Defined Benefit Plan - Sometimes known as traditional pensions, which promise the participant a specified monthly benefit at retirement. Often, the benefit is based on factors such as the participant's salary, age and number of years worked for the employer.5

Once you reach age 72, you must begin taking required minimum distributions from your 401(k), 403(b) or other defined-contribution plans (unless you're a >5% owner of the company). Withdrawals from defined-contribution plans are taxed as ordinary income and, if taken before age 55 may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty. 

Starting Your Search

One of the best ways to find lost retirement accounts is to contact your former employers. If you're unsure where to direct your call, the human resources or accounting department should be able to check their plan records to see if you've ever participated. However, you will most likely be asked to provide your full name, Social Security number, and the dates you worked, so be sure to come prepared.

If your former employer is no longer around, look for an old 401(k) statement. Often these will have the contact information for the plan administrator. If you don't have an old statement, consider reaching out to former coworkers who may have the information you need. 

Even if these first steps don't turn up much info, they can help you gather important information. 

Websites to Check 

Next, it's time to take your search online. Make sure you have as much information as possible at hand and give the following resources a try. 

National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits - This database uses employer and government data to determine if you have any unpaid or lost retirement account money. Like most of these online tools, you'll need to provide your Social Security number, but no additional information is required.6

The U.S. Department of Labor, Abandoned Plan Search - The Department of Labor tracks plans that have been abandoned or are in the process of being terminated. Try searching their database to find the Qualified Termination Administrator (QTA) responsible for directing the shutdown of the plan.7

Searching for Other Money

Retirement accounts aren't the only money that can get misplaced. You might also have a long-lost claim to the contents of a safe deposit box, uncashed checks, insurance policies, CDs, trust funds, utility payments, stocks and bonds, old paychecks, and escrow accounts.

Unclaimed or abandoned property is usually turned over to a state government. Every U.S. state has unclaimed property programs that actively and continuously find owners of lost and forgotten assets. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) leads and facilitates collaboration among administrators in their efforts to reunite unclaimed property with the rightful owner. 

Search By State

Most states have quick and easy online forms you can use to search for property. Start by looking up the Controller's Office or Treasurer's Office from the last few states that you’ve lived and worked in. Look for the terms "Unclaimed Property" or "Abandoned Property".

Here is the State of Nevada’s Unclaimed Property database organized under the Treasurer's Office (or consider the state-sponsored website www.ClaimItNevada.org). 

Here is the State of California's Unclaimed Property database organized under the Controller's Office.

Or, consider using the interactive map on the home page of www.unclaimed.org to find the official unclaimed property program for a state or province. 

Unclaimed.org's map will take you directly to the state office of your choice.

Search Multiple States At Once

Consider searching multiple states at once using The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators' website www.MissingMoney.com

There is no fee to file a claim or to search for property.

Eleven U.S. states and most Canadian provinces do not participate in the MissingMoney.com database. You can check for your state's participation at www.MissingMoney.com/en/Home/StateContact.

Key: Blue = Participate. Grey = Don't participate.

What's Next? 

Once you've found money in your name, what you do with it depends on the type and where it's held. Your location also matters. Depending on where you live, rules and regulations may differ.

No matter what you decide to do, involve a fee-only fiduciary like Open Window. We can help you be informed on current regulations for your state. We can also help you identify a strategy for your newfound money: travel, investment, or maybe that vacation home you've always wanted. You worked for that money, so if you can enjoy it responsibly, we want to help make that a reality!


  1. https://www.kiplinger.com/retirement/retirement-plans/401ks/603334/how-to-find-a-lost-retirement-account
  2. https://money.usnews.com/money/retirement/401ks/articles/what-are-unclaimed-retirement-benefits-and-how-to-find-them
  3. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/401k-plans
  4. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/irc-403b-tax-sheltered-annuity-plans
  5. https://www.irs.gov/retirement-plans/defined-benefit-plan
  6. https://unclaimedretirementbenefits.com
  7. https://www.askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch/