How to Find Thousands in Lost Pension Money

Last Updated Mar 9, 2011 3:27 PM EST

My wife and I were hiking with some friends recently, and as often happens now with people our age, we started talking about retirement -- more specifically, about whether we'd have enough retirement income to make ends meet. Our friend, Bill, commented that he had two small pensions from prior employers for whom he had worked more than ten years ago, but that he hadn't stayed in touch with them. He wondered if it was worth his time to track them down. Here's how our conversation went after that.

"The pensions are only a few hundred dollars per month -- they won't make much difference."

"How much are your pensions exactly?"

"One is about $200 per month, and the other is about $150 per month, for a total of $350 per month."

"How much of your time is it worth to find over $100,000?"

"Huh?"

"Between you and your wife, one of you will probably live 25 years or more in retirement, and $350 paid to you each month for 25 years comes to about $105,000."

Hearing that, Bill was now on fire to find this money, so he spent the time to track them down. One pension wasn't hard to find -- he called the HR department of his former employer, and they gave him the phone number and website of the plan administrator. One phone call was all it took to find out exactly how much his pension is worth and how to claim it.

Getting information on the other pension took a little more digging. His former company had gone bankrupt, and its pension plan had been taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), a federal agency that guarantees pensions of bankrupt companies. The agency also maintains information on any pension plan that has been terminated, even if the company is still in business. After contacting the PBGC, Bill found that an annuity had been purchased in his name from an insurance company. Then, just one phone call to the insurance company had Bill hitting paydirt.


Bill's situation was a fairly easy one to resolve; he knew how to contact one of his former employers, and the other employer's plan was in the PBGC's database because it had been terminated. It's more difficult to find lost pensions if your plan hasn't been terminated -- in that case, the PBGC can't help you. And if you no longer know how to contact your former employer because the company has moved, or if your former company has been folded into a larger company, you may have a bit of detective work on your hands.

First, remind yourself that it's worth the time to track down your pension -- remembering Bill's example may just motivate you to pick up the phone or surf the Internet. If you're in this situation, start with the PBGC. They've got a pamphlet, Finding a Lost Pension, posted online that offers a number of good tips that can help you get started on your search.

In addition, when you terminated employment with your former employer, your pension should have been reported to the Social Security Administration. When you apply for Social Security benefits or Medicare, the administration is required to tell you about pensions that have been reported to them.

But what if you want to learn about your pension before you apply for Social Security benefits? You can simply write to the Social Security administration and ask for information about your pension. Here's an article with details on how to do this.

Here are a few other things to know about finding missing pensions:
  • All of the above information only applies to traditional defined benefit pension plans; they don't apply to 401ks, profit-sharing plans, or any other defined contribution plan. For information on these latter types of plans, you'll need to keep in touch with the plan's administrator or the HR department of your former employer.
  • Also, the information here only applies to private employment, not government employment. Hopefully, your former government employer is still in business, although it could be quite a hunt to find the right person who'll be able to give you the information you need.
This story should reinforce the need to organize your retirement planning documents, and the importance of storing and organizing important papers in your retirement inventory.
Bill estimated that it was worth about $10,000 per hour of his time that he spent tracking down his lost pensions. That's pretty hard to beat!

Most people need to make every dollar count in retirement, so finding pensions that pay even just a few hundred dollars per month is well worth the time you might spend tracking them down. Happy hunting!

More on MoneyWatch:
  • Steve Vernon On Twitter»

    View all articles by Steve Vernon on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.

Comments

Market Data

Market News

Stock Watchlist