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Do You Know Where Your Retirement Benefits Are?

If not, you'll need to do some digging.

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— Ken Chernus/Getty Images

Most pension and employer-funded savings plans have length-of-service and vesting requirements. If your length of service didn’t meet plan requirements, you are not likely to be eligible for any benefits. If your employment was before 1976, service and vesting requirements were typically longer. Did you earn enough money and have enough service to yield a meaningful benefit? Sometimes the only way you’ll know is to complete all the research. Still, if you find a pension paying $100 or $200 each month or a savings plan with a $5,000 balance, reaping the income is worth the effort. After all, you earned these benefits.

Gather information about the employer and the retirement-income plan. Notification letters, benefit statements, or summary-plan descriptions are the best. If you can’t locate these, find your tax returns for the years in question. The W-2 attached to your return contains the critical information you’ll need: the nine-digit Federal Employer Identification Number (EIN). If you can’t find your old returns, you can request copies from the Internal Revenue Service. Ideally, you want to find the three-digit IRS Plan Number that will appear on plan summaries or statements. This number will be valuable later in the process. Alternatively, you can obtain a copy of your Social Security earnings at socialsecurity.gov.

If your employer has ceased to exist and you had a balance in your retirement income plan, the funds and records might have passed to a successor organization or been placed in a financial institution administering the plan's assets and benefits.

At worst, your employer defaulted on the obligation and there are no assets. This is far less likely to have happened after the 1976 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which required employers to provide increased security for retirement-plan participants.

If your past employer filed bankruptcy and there was no successor organization, your assets and records would pass to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). This federal agency takes over the assets and payment obligations for bankrupt plan sponsors. The agency's Web site, pbgc.gov offers extensive information, including the publication, “Finding a Lost Pension”.

You can also phone the PBGC’s "Missing Participant Program" toll-free, at 1-800-326-5678. It’s likely, though, that once transferred to PBGC care, your pension will not pay full benefits. The PBGC maintains online databases of plans and plan participants. Your may find your name on the PBGC database, and your search will be over.

If there is no record with the PBGC, you can contact the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. This organization maintains a database of people whose previous employers have established Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) for former employees.

One word of caution: Be very wary of organizations claiming to help in recovering lost assets "for a fee" or for a share of the found money. There are legitimate organizations and professionals engaged in this activity. Do not pay any fees in advance, and deal only with organizations you can reference-check and verify.

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