How to Find a Lost Pension Plan

The government has almost $197 million in unclaimed pension benefits.

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The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government agency that insures private sector pensions, is holding almost $197 million in unclaimed pension benefits for over 36,000 people. The money is from private sector terminated pension plans now administered by PBGC.

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Unclaimed benefits average about $6,550 and range from $1 up to $676,436. In New York, the state with the most unclaimed benefits, 7,215 people are owed $40.65 million. And in California, 3,078 former pension participants are eligible for $7.82 million. Other states with significant amounts of unclaimed retirement money include Texas ($11.52 million), New Jersey ($14.22 million), Ohio ($15.56 million), Illinois ($16.78 million), and Pennsylvania ($11.32 million). Workers who are owed benefits are primarily former employees of the airline, steel, transportation, machinery, retail trade, apparel, and financial services industries.

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Employees who have lost track of a pension earned during their career can try looking it up in the PBGC’s online pension search directory. Potential pensioners can search by their last name, company name, or state. Since the search tool went online in 1996 about 37,000 people have found nearly $252 million in missing pension benefits.

The PBGC becomes responsible for administering pension benefits when the retirement plan is underfunded or an employer voluntarily chooses to close the plan. Workers who find their names in the directory will be asked to provide proof of age and other information. Useful documents to collect include a notification that you are vested in the plan, an individual benefit statement, an exit letter, or a summary plan description. Confirmed pension participants could receive an annuity from a private insurance company, funds set aside by their former employer, or benefits directly from the PBGC.

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Workers who were vested in a pension plan at a former job are entitled to pension benefits, even if the pension fund no longer exists or the company went out of business or merged with another firm. Vesting schedules can range from immediate to requiring 20 or more years on the job before pension benefits are earned. The worker’s spouse may also be entitled to a benefit. Only traditional pensions, not 401(k)s, are insured by the PBGC.