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Personal Accounting

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

With the exception of those fortunate individuals who have enjoyed lifetime employment with a single employer, most age-50+ workers and retirees have to keep track of pension and retirement savings benefits from several organizations stretching over 25-, 35-, and 45-year spans.

It's an understatement, but maintaining a lifetime's worth of investment data can be challenging.

Personal records get lost. Home addresses change. Retirement income plans are revised or cancelled. Companies merge, change names, and go out of business.

All the workings of the marketplace can add up to “lost assets,” pension or savings-plan capital and benefits that are lost in the simple passing of time.

In the midst of our busy careers, we often don't think of maintaining accurate records of where our accumulated pensions or savings-plan benefits are. But if a previous employer or plan administrator cannot locate you, your retirement benefits and assets are generally set securely aside until you go looking for them. If your former employer or plan administrator goes out of business, your assets are transferred to a successor entity, and the paper trail gets colder.

Since several businesses faltered in the past year's rough economy, I have received an increasing number of questions about locating and recovering lost assets and benefits. See if one of the following scenarios applies to questions you may have.

I’ve worked in coal mining for my entire life. About 15 years ago, I got a letter informing me that I could begin receiving pension payments as early as age 55. I’m now 60 and would like to begin those benefits, but I can’t find the original plan information. I can’t find any phone numbers or addresses to reach someone. How do I go about locating my lost pension? –Michael, Utah

A: If you’re lucky, the employer will still be in business, and your biggest challenge will be finding out how to reach the HR department. The easiest way to do this is to contact a previous coworker, who may be receiving payments, or to get on the Internet and start searching by the employer’s name. Once you’ve found the information and verified your employment, the employer will activate your payments or transfer account balances to you.

Unfortunately, tracking down your pension is not always that simple.

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