How to track down an old retirement account

Dear Liz: I worked for a company during the late 1990s.  When I left, I had a 401(k) worth approximately $10,000. I recently found an old 401(k) statement and called the plan administrator. I was told my company’s accounts had been transferred to another plan administrator in 2008. I called the new administrator and was told they also could not find my 401(k) using my Social Security number. How do I proceed?  What are my options?

Answer: Get ready to make a lot more phone calls.

There’s no central repository for missing 401(k) funds — at least not yet. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which safeguards traditional pensions, has proposed rules that would allow it to hold orphaned 401(k) money from plans that have closed. That wouldn’t start until 2018. Another proposal, by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), would direct the IRS to set up an online database so workers could find pension and 401(k) benefits from open or closed plans, but Congress has yet to take action on that.

If your balance was less than $5,000 — which is possible, given the big market drop in 2008-2009 — your employer could have approved a forced IRA transfer and the money could be sitting with a financial services firm that accepts small accounts. If the plan was closed and your employer couldn’t find you, the money could have been transferred to an IRA, a bank account or a state escheat office. You can check state escheat offices at Unclaimed.org, but searching for an IRA or bank account may require help.

If your employer still exists, call to find out if anyone knows what happened to your money. If the company is out of business, you may be able to get free help tracking down your money from the U.S. Department of Labor (at askebsa.dol.gov or (866) 444-3272) or from the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit pension counseling center (pensionrights.org/find-help). Another place to check is the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits, a subsidiary of a private company, called PenChecks, that processes retirement checks, at www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com.

One more wrinkle: Your employer or a plan administrator could insist you cashed in your account at some point. You may be able to prove otherwise if you’ve kept old tax returns, since those typically would show any distributions.

Your experience shows why it’s important not to lose track of old retirement accounts. Your current employer may allow you to transfer old accounts into its plan, or you can roll the money into an IRA. Either way, it’s much better to keep on top of your retirement money than to try to find it years later.

Discontinuing automatic payments after death

Dear Liz: I use auto-pay for bills in both my business and my personal life. What can we, as consumers, do to protect ourselves and our estates from companies taking advantage of the auto-pay when we die? Do our heirs have to cancel right away? They will have so many other things to deal with in those first months after a loved one dies.

Answer: You may have read about Pia Farrenkopf, the Michigan woman whose mortgage and utility bills continued on auto payment for five years after she died. It was only after her account ran dry, the bank foreclosed on her home and a contractor was sent to fix a hole in the roof that her mummified corpse was found in a Jeep parked in her garage.

The companies receiving the payments weren’t taking advantage of her — they had no way of knowing she was dead. And not all bills will or should stop getting paid at the moment of someone’s death. Even if Farrenkopf’s death had been noticed right away, the person settling her estate likely would have kept the utilities paid and the insurance in force until the home was sold.

If you’re concerned about auto-payments continuing for too long, make sure that your executor or successor trustee has access to your bank accounts. Your bank has a power of attorney form that you can use to grant instant access, or you can provide your login credentials, either now or in the estate planning documents this person will receive at your death.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the "Contact" form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.

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