Liz Weston: Lost retirement accounts are unfortunately common. Here’s how to find your money

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.

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.