The NYT just had an interesting story about lost retirement accounts and other unclaimed money, and as I read it I thought of my early few jobs where I didn’t think I had a 401k… or DID I? I also thought of my husband’s, and my brother’s, and before long started thinking gosh, I should send this to everyone I know.
I was particularly intrigued because this isn’t chump change (necessarily) — the article notes that the average value of assets in inactive retirement accounts is about $60,000, with a median amount of about $15,000. Furthermore, the New York website for missing money states that there is $17.5 BILLION in Unclaimed Funds, and every day New York state returns $1.5 million to those who file claims. Yes please!
So for today’s money challenge: let’s review the article (gift link) and check for lost retirement accounts and other missing money. It should take you just a few minutes to do the initial checks!
(Just a note that if you’re involved with the estate for a deceased relative or friend, you should definitely do these checks — I found some small amounts for my deceased aunt and grandparents.)
About this Series
This is part of our series on occasional tasks you can do to improve your financial well-being. I’m not a personal finance expert — this is just stuff that I do myself from time to time. If you have any comments or different strategies, I’d love to hear them! See the entire Money Challenge series here.
(If you’re looking for more basic investing advice, I’d suggest taking a look at our Money Roadmap, which lays out what steps you should take and in what order, with links to posts with more information and discussion.)
You also may want to check out our personal money snapshots, where anonymous readers share their net worth, salary, and other thoughts on personal finance!
How to Check for Lost Retirement Accounts and Other Unclaimed Money
The New York Times recently looked at lost retirement accounts — the idea that when people change jobs, particularly some of those early ones, you may forget about your retirement account through a particular employer.
According to the article,
The Center for Retirement Research at Boston College estimates that about 21 million vested retirement accounts in the United States are inactive, meaning that they are eligible to be tapped but sit dormant instead. The same researchers calculated in 2018 that the average value of assets in these inactive accounts was about $60,000, with a median amount of about $15,000, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Department of Labor. That’s an amount of money most people can’t afford to lose.
The article’s author further explains:
I had several different jobs at the beginning of my career, all of which offered 401(k) benefits. By the time I reached my 30s, I was dimly aware that I had three separate retirement accounts (all containing paltry amounts) floating around with former employers. Figuring out how to retrieve and consolidate them took days of phone calls, paperwork and coordination with different financial firms.
Understandably, many people never get that far.
Wow — I don’t think there are many of us who would turn our noses up at $15,000, let alone $60,000. So… let’s get to it.
(This reminds me that I need to check the lottery tickets I bought on a whim a week ago; I could be a billionaire and not even know it. Ha.)
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
The first place they recommend checking is The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. You have to enter your social security number, which always squicks me out online, but this is for research, right?
(The site promises that their searches are fast, easy, and most importantly, secure. You can view the results in seconds, and there is no limit on how many times you can search.)
I checked both my SSN and my husband’s, and sure enough, we get the answer in seconds: no unclaimed retirement accounts. Onward.
Unclaimed.org / The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators
The next place the NYT recommends check is Unclaimed.org, run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, part of the network of The National Association of State Treasurers. You can search by state, or they note that “most” states participate in MissingMoney.com, which lets you search several states at once.
This one led to a lot more interesting results. You only enter a name (not your SSN), and in seconds you get results. Note that most of the results that I got, at least, are not retirement accounts, but rather small amounts owed by banks, or the Tax Department, or PayPal.
My maiden name had nothing, but I think the cousin I’ve only met once or twice might have some money owed to him. I checked my married name, which admittedly is pretty common, and pages of results come up — nothing seems to be associated with a previous address of mine, so I’ll assume that’s a no.
When I checked my husband’s name, which is more unique, a full page of entries came up where he’s owed money. They’re all small amounts (lots saying “<$25”), but still: exciting!
(He’ll be THRILLED for a new weekend project. Kidding.)
When I checked my mother’s maiden name, I found a ton of entries for another cousin, an aunt, and my (deceased) grandparents. The missing money entries that have an address tied to them are easy if it’s one of your previous address, but some have much less information attached. Those are going to take a bit more investigation.
(For my husband, in order to claim them we have to go through the NY site directly — they note that there is $17.5 BILLION in Unclaimed Funds, and every day New York State returns $1.5 million to those who file claims here. WOW.)
This was a really promising check — I recommend it.
The Department of Labor’s Abandoned Plans Database
The third place they recommend checking is the DOL’s database for Abandoned Plans. (That sounds ominous!) This one can be a bit trickier because you might need the company’s exact name to really make headway.
That might sound a bit odd, but one of my earliest jobs was for Family Circle magazine, which was then owned by a German publisher, Gruner + Jahr. My memory is they went by G+J USA, but they might have had other names for the U.S. subsidiary (plus, spacing and + or & really matters here). So if I were really curious, I’d check my old pay stubs or W2s to see what the official name of the company was (and if any money was being put aside for retirement)… but I still think any money owed to me would have come up in the first search using my Social Security Number, so I’ll probably table that one for a later time.
All in all, this was a really interesting exercise, even if I didn’t find big money.
(Dang it, I still have to check those lotto tickets.)
Readers, what are your thoughts — are you sure you have every cent you’ve put aside for retirement, or are those first few jobs a bit hazy? If you’ve taken the steps above, what did you find?
Thanks! My next adulting task!
I recently checked the unclaimed property sites for the last two states I’d lived in and found $125 for me and $50 for my husband. One was from the water company (a deposit that didn’t get returned?) and the other must have been a travel reimbursement? It was really easy to claim and checks showed up a couple weeks later.
Yup, checking this stuff is totally worthwhile.
My brother, who has moved many times and worked for a lot of employers, received several thousand dollars this way.
Wow I just found a $356 insurance payment for myself and a few small things for my daughter totaling $100 or so. Yay! Thanks!