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How to find old 401(k) accounts + what to do with them



April 19, 2024

8 min read

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Key takeaways
  • Your 401(k) doesn't automatically transfer when you leave a company. You need to continue to manage the account, roll over to a new 401(k), or roll over to an IRA.
  • You can use free 401(k) finders, contact previous employers, and search your financial records to dig up old accounts.

In this article

      Employer-sponsored retirement accounts are a great way to grow your nest egg, but millions of people have forgotten old 401(k) accounts. It’s a shame to leave any savings behind – especially if you’ve maxed out your contributions to take advantage of its tax-deferred benefits

      Luckily, they’re easy to retrieve if you know how to find old 401(k) accounts, which you’ll usually find:

      • In the old account with your previous employer
      • In a new account with your plan administrator
      • With your state’s unclaimed property

      Here’s everything you need to organize your financial planning when you suddenly remember an account from three jobs ago.

      Dig into personal records.

      All new agreements, including your 401(k) account, involve paperwork that details the service provider and policy. You’ve also likely received regular account performance updates through mail or email. Digging through your personal financial records to find this paperwork is a great place to start. 

      Don’t forget to check your digital folders, too. Search old emails and native files on your phone and computer for any electronic updates you’ve received. You may also have access to online employer payroll, HR, or 401(k) custodian platforms with specific details.

      Money bag next to the statistics "29.2 million 401(k) accounts were lost in 2023."

      Call up previous employers.

      Your previous employer’s HR departments have records of companies they’ve partnered with and can point you in the right direction. They’ll also know who your plan administrator was and can share their contact information. 

      Accounts with a 401(k) balance over $5,000 are likely still active with your previous workplace, and you can choose to maintain it or roll over the amount to a new account.

      Amounts under $5,000 aren’t as well protected. The company can force you to cash out anything under $1,000, and you’ll be responsible for any taxes on the withdrawal. 

      Companies can maintain accounts between $1,000-$4,499 with the original 401(k) arrangement or transfer funds to an individual retirement account (IRA) as they see fit. 

      Try a free 401(k) finder.

      If you still can’t find any old 401(k) details after searching your personal records and contacts, you can check online databases for more information. There are a few resources available depending on your specific needs. 

      The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits allows employees, employers, and service providers like estate managers to search for unclaimed retirement benefits. This is a free and secure service to find old 401(k) accounts, and all you need is your Social Security Number. 

      The Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Program finds terminated and abandoned pension plans. This is a good resource if your previous employer is no longer in business or is dead, imprisoned, or outside the country.

      Capitalize is another digital database you can use to find old retirement savings for free. You’ll have to share your personal details to complete a search, and they offer advice if you’re interested in rolling over your old 401(k) into an IRA.

      Finally, you can search unclaimed state databases like MissingMoney.com. These online tools find terminated accounts that were surrendered to the state. You may even luck into finding other unclaimed assets like old checking accounts or life insurance benefits.

      How to manage your lost-then-found 401(k)

      It’s time to decide what you want to do with your savings once you track down an old 401(k) account. You generally have three options, and each has its perks and considerations:

      Image lists the pros and some cons of different 401k management options, including keeping the account, rolling it into a new 401k, and rolling into an IRA.

      Keep rolling with the existing account. 

      Some employers allow you to maintain an existing 401(k) if you have more than $5,000 invested. This is a good choice if the account is performing exceptionally well or you have access to specific benefits like employer stock or mutual funds that your current retirement plan doesn’t offer. 

      That said, you won’t be able to contribute more funds to the account, and any future returns are based on previous contributions. You also can’t borrow against this account for a quick loan. 

      Rollover to your new employer’s 401(k).

      If you choose not to maintain the existing account, you can transfer the balance into your current employer’s 401(k) program. 

      Depending on your account balance, this can significantly boost your current account’s balance and lead to larger returns moving forward. You also have a larger balance to borrow against and fewer accounts to manage overall. 

      Know that you may be subject to transfer fees and taxes if you can’t complete a direct rollover following all transfer rules. Your plan administrator can help you understand and navigate any fees you may incur. 

      It’s also worth asking about employer-sponsored Roth 401(k) accounts. Roth accounts charge for taxes upfront so you can withdraw your money tax-free once you reach age 59 ½. Roth accounts are ideal if you expect to be in a higher tax bracket once you start withdrawing retirement income. 

      Comparison of traditional IRAs (taxes paid at withdrawal) and Roth IRAs (taxes paid upfront).

      Roll over to an individual retirement account (IRA).

      Every good investment portfolio includes diversified accounts, and that’s true for your retirement planning, too. In addition to 401(k)s, it’s wise to have IRAs that an employer doesn’t sponsor

      These offer a wider range of investment opportunities than 401(k)s so you have much more control to customize your account and investments. Depending on your account choice, you may also avoid taxes and additional transfer fees. 

      Best of all, you own the account entirely, so you won’t have to transfer any retirement funds next time you accept a new job.

      IRAs are also available as traditional or Roth accounts. 

      • Traditional IRA: Tax-deferred growth – pay no taxes when you roll over your 401(k), but pay taxes on withdrawals
      • Roth IRA: After-tax growth – pay taxes when you roll over your 401(k) and enjoy tax-free withdrawals after age 59 ½

      The Playbook take

      Tracking all of your financial assets is vital to maximizing your investments, and hopefully you’ve learned your lesson and will take care of your 401(k) when you accept a new job. But now you know how to find old 401(k) accounts – just in case it falls through the cracks.

      Once you have all your accounts in order, you can build a financial plan supporting your personal goals, like improved tax strategies or a focused retirement plan.

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      About the author

      Phil Wettersten, Series 7 & 66

      Head of Product Success

      Phil holds both Series 66 and Series 7 credentials and previously served as an Investment Consultant at TD Ameritrade. At Playbook, he's the authoritative voice representing our customers, spearheading product enhancements and strategic planning. Phil's unwavering dedication keeps us ahead in delivering top-notch user experiences.

      Tanza Loudenback, CFP®


      Tanza is a CFP® certificant, writer, and editor. From 2015 to 2021, she was a top-read author and editor at Insider. Her work focuses on helping people make smart decisions with their money and is published by a variety of online publications.

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