Lost retirement accounts are a growing problem. How to track down yours
Dear Liz: I applied for and received Social Security widow’s benefits from my deceased ex-husband. Social Security notified me that my ex-husband had a profit-sharing plan that could have beneficiary money. I have tried to find out the correct people to talk to, but the original employer has changed hands a few times. I spoke to the financial services company that handles retirement plans for the current iteration, but they had no record of my ex-husband’s account. Do you have any ideas of people to talk to [in order to] find out if there is a beneficiary for his account?
Answer: Lost retirement accounts are unfortunately a common issue. Financial services company Capitalize estimated in 2021 that 24.3 million 401(k) accounts, with an average balance of $55,400, had been left behind by job changers, with the total rising year after year. Leaving an account with a former employer isn’t a guarantee the money will be forgotten, but it does increase the odds. Most people are better off rolling an old account into a new employer’s plan or an IRA.
There’s no national database for unclaimed retirement accounts, but there are a few places you can look. Companies with employee retirement plans are required to file a Form 5500 annually with the IRS, and these forms have contact information that may be helpful. You can try searching the U.S. Department of Labor’s site for the forms at efast.dol.gov. Another option is creating a free account at FreeErisa, which may help you find older plans. The Department of Labor also has an abandoned plan database at askebsa.dol.gov/AbandonedPlanSearch.
Your next step might be checking the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits at unclaimedretirementbenefits.com. This database is run by a company that processes retirement plan distributions. Another place to try is the National Assn. of Unclaimed Property Administrators’ database at unclaimed.org.
The higher earner’s benefit determines what the survivor gets. By delaying Social Security, the higher earner boosts how much the remaining spouse will have to make ends meet.
Retirees and disability benefits
Dear Liz: I have a few simple questions about disability, but have been getting different answers from different advisors. Even the Social Security site has different answers. My wife, a nurse, is 71 and has been working for more than 45 years. She is receiving Social Security benefits, starting when she was 70. She has been working in the office, with little patient contact, for 2½ days weekly for a few years with a salary of just over $50,000. She has progressive neuromuscular pain, with significant pain and discomfort in the right upper leg with radiation. It affects her most when she is sitting, which is how she performs her job. She has seen multiple specialists. She does have various meds for pain, but they cloud her thinking, and she doesn’t want that to affect her work. She is missing more and more time. Is she eligible for disability? If so, can she apply while she is still working, or does she need to have stopped completely? Will her Social Security affect or be affected by her disability? Is there a rough estimate as to the disability payments she may get if she is eligible?
Answer: There is nothing simple about Social Security’s disability benefit program. In general, though, it’s meant to provide a subsistence level of income for people younger than retirement age who can’t work. The average monthly Social Security disability payment is less than $1,500 a month. Benefits are granted only to people who are totally disabled, meaning they can’t work and their condition has lasted or is expected to last at least a year or result in death.
Social Security disability payments aren’t designed to supplement retirement benefits. Once a disabled person reaches their full retirement age, which is currently between 66 and 67, a Social Security disability benefit converts to a retirement benefit, says Christopher Lanfranca, a senior retirement analyst with Social Security Solutions, a claiming strategies site. Someone who applies for disability benefits past full retirement age probably would be given retirement benefits instead.
Adjusting to a $50,000 drop in income could be tough. Consider consulting a fee-only financial planner or accredited financial counselor who can review your financial situation and offer suggestions.
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.
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