How to Find a Lost Pension Plan | Baby Boomers
Some people lose track of their pension plan from an old job. A company might merge with or be bought by another company and change its name, move to a new location in a different city or go out of business. When this happens, your pension is not necessarily lost, but it might take a little research to find it.
Here’s how to track down a pension from a former employer:
- Contact your former employer.
- Consider financial and insurance companies.
- Search at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
- Collect the paperwork.
- Look into spousal payments.
- Make sure you are vested.
Contact Your Former Employer
The first step is to reach out to your former company or its successor. Try to contact the plan administrator of your pension plan or another pension plan yours was combined with.
“If you don’t have any documentation, I typically recommend reaching out to your previous employer’s human resources department,” says Madeline Napier, a certified financial planner and founder of Minerva Wealth Planning in Columbus, Ohio. “HR is where these benefits are typically housed, and an individual in that department should be able to provide direction or at least a contact phone number to track down any eligible benefits if they can’t answer that question themselves.”
A new company may have inherited the legal obligation to pay the benefits of your former employer’s pension plan. You can search for news about corporate bankruptcies and mergers, contact former co-workers or reach out to a union associated with the company for more information about who is now in charge of the plan.
“To locate a lost plan, former employees will need any document that has contact information for their old employers,” says Jane Smith, a policy analyst at the Pension Rights Center. “Additionally, former employees will need those documents that demonstrate their rights to retirement benefits, such as summary plan descriptions and benefit statements.”
Pension plan annual financial reports, which are part of federal form 5500, may help identify a person to contact, such as the plan’s accountant, trustee or attorney.
Consider Financial and Insurance Companies
Your former employer may have turned over your pension plan assets to an insurance company, which now has the obligation to pay out annuity benefits to eligible participants.
“If your pension has been turned over to an insurance company, it’s very important to keep track of any letters or other information that you receive about the benefit, so that you can claim it when you are ready to retire,” says Anna-Marie Tabor, director of the Pension Action Center at the University of Massachusetts—Boston. “The benefit that you get from the insurance company should be essentially the same as what you would have received as a pension.”
Sometimes a financial institution will administer a pension plan and hold money for pension participants who could not be located and paid.
Search at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation insures private-sector traditional pension plans and pays out benefits up to certain limits if the plan fails. The PBGC has a database of unclaimed pensions that lists over 72,000 people who are eligible for pension payments that could not be located by the PBGC or their former employer.
Residents of California have the most unclaimed pensions (8,458), followed by Texas (5,186), New York (5,601), Florida (3,840) and Illinois (3,359). The PBGC says these unclaimed pensions are collectively worth over $300 million, and individual benefits range from a few cents to almost a million dollars.
The PBGC does not insure 401(k) plans. It also usually doesn’t insure pensions provided by groups of doctors, lawyers and other professionals with fewer than 26 employees, religious groups or federal, state and local governments.
Collect the Paperwork
An individual benefit statement or an exit letter noting your participation in the plan can help prove your eligibility for payments.
“ERISA, which is the federal law that sets standards for qualified retirement plans, requires that any participants in a qualified plan receive the plan’s summary annual report from the plan administrator,” Napier says. “This is a great starting point because this document should be able to give you clues about where the plan resides, if it’s still funded and can help you with how to get in touch with the right people to determine any existing benefits.”
Pay slips and W-2 forms that show your employment dates and earnings can also signify eligibility. When you sign up for Social Security and Medicare, the Social Security Administration sends a notice of potential private pension benefit information to people who may be due pensions.
“It will contain the name of the pension plan, the plan administrator and an employer identification number,” Tabor says.
Look Into Spousal Payments
Defined benefit pension plans sometimes provide married workers with a qualified joint and survivor annuity, which entitles the surviving spouse to a payment. If you are married to someone with a pension, it’s worth looking into the payments you might qualify for, even if the worker has passed away.
Make Sure You Are Vested
You need to be vested in a pension plan to qualify for benefits. Once you are vested in a retirement plan, you are eligible for benefits at retirement age, regardless of when you left the job.
A summary plan description typically explains the plan’s rules for vesting. Some pension plans vest in as little as five years, while others require 10 or even 20 or more years of service to qualify for payments in retirement. If you are not vested in the pension plan, you typically are not eligible for payments.