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Where’s My Money?

Chances are, you aren’t sure where all your 401(k) funds are. A handy guide to claiming what’s rightfully yours.

Chances are, you forgot your 401(k) funds when you left your last gig, and the gig before that, and the one before that… Here’s how to claim what’s rightfully yours.

When even a year feels like a long time to stay at one job (let alone an apartment), it’s way too easy to leave money behind when you transition into a new role. That’s a shame, especially if your company matched your contributions. Chances are, you’ve been neglecting some serious cash. Tracking down old 401(k)s isn’t anyone’s idea of fun, but a little detective work can literally pay dividends:

Pick Up the Damn Phone

The field of retirement funds is pretty old-fashioned, so unfortunately, your first step is to actually get on the phone. Take a deep breath, remind yourself that you are a capable adult, and call your old employer. Even if your departure was awkward, you won’t need to speak with your old supervisor or coworkers, just the person in charge of benefits.

Ask the Right Questions

Now find out who your retirement plan’s “custodian” is. This is the financial firm handling your investments. Yes, you’ve got to call them, too, since the custodian is a separate entity. A customer service rep there should be able to confirm whether you have an account and how much money is in it, as well as explain your options for reclaiming the funds.

Do Some Digging Online

Can’t find an actual person to talk to? Your company probably had to file a Form 5500 for tax purposes so use a gratis online service like FreeERISA or BrightScope to dig up a current phone number and contact person. You can also search the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, which is where companies list “missing” plan participants. (That’s you).

If Your Company Went Out of Business

Contact the federal Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) to see if your company made any arrangements or left behind instructions about handling former employees. If you suspect the 401(k) program was entirely dismantled, check the EBSA’s Abandoned Plan Search page for confirmation and who to call. If the company wasn’t able to reach you with the news (perhaps because your residence on file was out of date), your money may well be languishing in an unclaimed property fund at the state treasury—the one where you were employed and paid taxes—though it usually takes a few years before that happens. Poke around the website MissingMoney to get your mitts on any abandoned cash.

Now Decide What to Do

Leave your 401(k) where it is, cash out (if you do, you’ll face steep penalties), or roll over any rediscovered money into one account—either your current company’s 401(k) or an individual retirement account, known as an IRA. The most important step? Remember how annoyed you feel right now. Now vow to deal with your 401(k) without delay the next time you jump ship.

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