How To Find Your Old 401(k)

Once you break up with a company — either by your choice or theirs — everything you contributed to your 401(k) is yours to keep. 

However, what typically happens is that 401(k)s get left behind in the hubbub of job changes. 

The good news is it doesn’t matter how long ago you left your position, your old 401(k) can still be tracked down. Plus, you want to ensure your retirement funds are earning their highest potential — which if they are stuck with an old employer is probably not happening. 

Erika Taught Me

  • It doesn’t matter how long your 401(k) has been abandoned, it’s still your money and you should find it.
  • If your 401(k) was under $7,000, it might have been converted to cash or an IRA without your consent.
  • Don’t leave your 401(k) with a previous employer — you could be paying too many fees and not getting the best return for your investment.

. . .

What Happens to Your 401(k) When You Leave an Employer?

If you don’t touch your 401(k) after leaving, there are a few things that can happen, depending on your previous employer’s rules and how much you had invested. 

  • For balances under $7,000: If the balance in your 401(k) falls between $1,000 and $7,000, your employer can automatically roll over the funds into an IRA without your direct consent. You will become the owner of this new IRA. 
  • For balances over $7,000: “Your 401(k) remains with the same 401(k) provider,” says R.J. Weiss, CFP and founder of Ways to Wealth. “The responsibility to move the account falls on you. There's no strict time limit for accessing or rolling over your 401(k) funds.” 

Most abandoned 401(k)s over $7,000 will remain with your previous employer, still earning interest, but you will have limited control over your investment and the high fees can cancel out any growth. 

In some cases, the employer can cash out a long-forgotten 401(k) and turn over the funds to the state as unclaimed property. 

How To Find Old 401(k)s

No matter how much time has passed, this is still your money, and you have the right to it. 

Of course, the longer your 401(k) has been abandoned, the harder it might be to track down. Here’s where to start your hunt:

Contact your previous employer

It’s best to go straight to the source. The company’s head of HR should be able to assist you, even if they were not in this position when you were an employee. 

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules about how helpful HR needs to be, but try to at least get this information from them:

  • Plan administrator contact information
  • Plan ID and account numbers
  • Contributions made 

If you at least have the name of the plan administrator, you can contact them directly for more assistance. They should be able to locate your plan based on your Social Security number. 

Find old plans with rollover apps

There are a few apps designed to make the job of tracking down your old 401(k) a breeze. 

These apps will assist you in rolling over your 401(k) to an IRA. This move will save you tax trouble and help your money to continue growing, but it is not the same as rolling your 401(k) over to a new company’s 401(k) plan. 

You can use the following apps to help you locate your old plans and then decide what the best next move is. 

ServicesFeeAdditional retirement account services
CapitalizeFind old 401(k) accounts; rollovers $0403(b) and Roth 401(k) rollovers
BeagleFind old 401(k) accounts, rollovers$3.99/moNot mentioned 

Search online databases

If your ex-employer is no help, you might be able to track down your old plan through one of the government databases: 

  • National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits: You will be able to find any unclaimed benefits tied to your name. All you need is your Social Security number. 
  • Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plan Database: You can search based on your company’s name and location and see if anything comes up. 
  • Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC): Enter your last name and last four digits of your Social Security number. The system is updated quarterly, so if you are recently separated from your position, you might need to wait a few months before any info is found. 
  • Missingmoney.com: This is the official site of the National Association of State Treasurers. You can search for unclaimed money by your name and either claim it through this website or get directed to your state’s unclaimed property website. 

What To Do With Your Old 401(k)

Once you’ve tracked down your old 401(k), you have a few options for what to do with it. 

Each choice has its own set of advantages and disadvantages. 

Keep your 401(k) with your former employer

You don’t necessarily have to move your 401(k) when changing jobs. 

You can leave it untouched, and if your contributions are over $7,000, it will continue to grow tax-deferred. 

However, you won’t have as much control over your investment options or be able to monitor it. You can also end up paying more fees. 

Roll over your 401(k) to your new employer  

The perk of rolling over your 401(k) to a new employer is that all of your retirement savings will be consolidated into one account. 

The main downside to this option is that not all employers accept rollovers. Your new employer’s retirement account can also have limited investment options when compared to an IRA. 

Roll over your 401(k) to an IRA

Rolling your old 401(k) into an IRA gives you the most control over your portfolio and fees. You could even choose to pursue a precious metals IRA rollover if you’re interested in more alternative investments

But the IRA route will require more legwork on your end. You’ll need to compare IRA providers and fees. 

“Once you initiate a 401(k) rollover to an IRA, you have 60 days to complete the transfer,” says Weiss. “If the money is not deposited into the new IRA within this timeframe, it could be considered a withdrawal and subject to taxes and penalties.”

READ MORE: IRA vs. 401(k): Which One Is Better for You?

Cash it out

While this might be the most tempting option, it is also the worst choice financially. 

When you cash out a 401(k) plan you are automatically hit with tax consequences and a 10% penalty if you are under the age of 59½. On top of those downsides, you will lose the benefit of compounding earnings

If you have a 401(k) established when you are 25, it is going to grow faster and with less effort than a retirement account started at age 35 or 45. 

Don’t allow the financial desperation of today to derail your long-term retirement and saving goals!

@erikakullberg

Investing from 25 vs 35 – guess the difference 🤯😱 #erikataughtme #lawyer #investing

♬ original sound – Money Lawyer Erika

FAQs

Do you lose your 401(k) if you get fired?

No, even if you are fired for something you did wrong. 

The 401(k) is attached to you and does not require you to be employed to keep it. However, you can lose any employer contributions that have not been vested. 

Can you cash out your 401(k) after leaving your job?

Yes, you can technically cash out your 401(k) whenever you choose. 

However, for most people, cashing out early will be a costly mistake. You will end up paying higher taxes in the tax year you withdraw, plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty. 

How long do I have to roll over my 401(k) from a previous employer? 

There is no deadline to when you have to roll over your 401(k) after leaving a job, but the sooner you do it, the better. 

Your 401(k) account could be subject to higher management fees now that you don’t have the perks of your position.

TL;DR: Don’t Leave Your 401(k) Behind!

Your 401(k) is yours to keep, no matter when or why you left your job. The sooner you can find it, the better, so you can avoid fees and ensure it’s growing to your advantage.

Contact your old employer directly, search one of the online databases, or use an app like Capitalize or Beagle to find your old 401(k) and take control of it.

For more tips on making your money work for you, check out these episodes of the Erika Taught Me podcast:

. . .

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I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

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Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.