When searching for your long-lost pension benefit, the main thing to keep in mind is the object of your search: The pension plan itself (or its successor). Here is what may have happened to your benefits:
- The plan is still intact (in one form or another). Maybe the original company was sold or reorganized, and the current owners assumed the obligation to pay you?
- The plan may have bought an annuity contract from an insurance company – which is now obligated to pay you.
- The plan may have simply arranged for an outside company to administer the plan – or even transferred the money owed to people like you (workers they lost track of).
- The plan may have been taken over by our friends at the Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (AKA PBGC).
- Lastly, the plan may simply be gone, along with the money. That’s usually illegal, but anything is possible.
Our job is to hunt down who is responsible for paying you. To do this, we need first to learn what happened to the pension after you left that job. It may be as simple as getting the company’s new address – or it may be as a difficult as piecing together a complex narrative of mergers and bankruptcies.
To start, let’s make a file with any and every document you can find in your home or office about this plan: old statements, pay stubs and W-2s from the employer, notifications, benefit statements and anything else.
Social Security automatically sends a notice of potential private pension information to people who may be eligible for a pension when you apply for Social Security and Medicare. This notice is only a potential benefit – but the notice can offer helpful clues and information. Also, your earnings record shows how much each employer paid you each calendar year. From it, you may be able to get the employer identification number which can be useful information for our search
To get a copy of your earnings record, file Form SSA-7050, “Request for Social Security Earnings Information.” The form is available at www.socialsecurity.gov/online/ssa-7050.pdf, or by calling 1-800-772-1213. This form will show whatever fees you may need to pay for the information. The response from Social Security may take 120 days or more.
Next, print the list of potential allies found here and add it to the file.
Let the search begin!
Start with a search of the www.pbgc.gov unclaimed pension database – which covers all participants in terminated defined benefit pension plans who could not be located by PBGC or by their former employer. If this does not lead you directly to your pension, it can lead to small “clues” which can be enormously helpful. If you find out the name of the company that bought your old employer, we then search for information about the second company.
To find the pension plan itself, we will usually need to find the company that sponsored it (even though they are not the same thing). Here are a few steps that can help us find the company we are looking for:
- An Internet search on google or bing: Type in the last known name of the company + pension + other pertinent words. More keywords are better. For example, if you know the company went out of business in March 1998 – add “March 1988” to your keywords. If you learn the company went bankrupt, the name and address of the trustee is public record and you can find records from bankruptcy under court filings by signing up for an account at www.pacer.gov
- Track down former co-workers that stayed longer than you and call them! They may be able to tell you what happened to the company. If the former co-worker is getting checks, ask specifically where they are coming from.
- It’s possible that a Union that represented the company has information. If you don’t know which Union or how to locate it – the states labour federation (The state AFL-CIO) may help find it. Check online.
- The Chamber of Commerce in the city where the company was located may know where the company moved or who bought it out.
- In some cases, the name and address of the administrator – as listed in the most recent document you can locate – may lead us directly to our object of desire. Even if the address is different from the company’s old address, there is a chance that this person will still be reachable there and can end our search or help with it.
Key point: Every pension plan has someone – or some department – officially designed as the plan administrator. In a small company, it’s usually the owner. In a big company, it’s an executive or committee. Or it could be an outside firm. This administrator holds the key to the kingdom: the records for each participant in the plan. IF THE PLAN IS STILL INTACT, THE ADMINISTRATOR IS THE OBJECT OF OUR SEARCH.
- The plans financial reports usually identify the plans accountant, actuary, trustee, attorney etc. and one of these actors should have information. These financial reports are contained in FORM 5500 – for information call a benefits advisor at the ESBA toll-free hot-line (1-866-444-3732). The second source for Form 5500 data is www.freeERISA.com which help you find 5500s even if the plan sponsors’ name has changed.
If we are lucky enough to find the company – and the plan itself, here are the next steps: Contact the plan administrator, insurance company, financial institution, or PBGC providing your dates of employment and other relevant information. Simply ask if you were covered and what benefits you are owed. Other information that you will want to explore:
Vesting: Were you vested in the pension at the time you left the job? Being vested means that you are eligible for benefits no matter when you leave the job (even if the pension no longer exists, you may be able to get your benefits – see an explanation of “legal protections” found here).
Rules of Eligibility: Were you eligible for a pension when you left? Private sector employees must outline eligibility rules in the summary plan description (AKA SPD), and you should have received an SPD when you joined the plan along with updated documents as the rules changed. It’s the rules that were in effect when you left the company that determine whether you have benefits or not.
Keep in mind that when you left the employer matters. If you left after 1975, you have more rights under federal law than if you left earlier as explained in the legal protections documents. Also, you should inquire about potential spousal rights. If you are a surviving spouse, it’s worth looking for benefits your husband or wife may have earned, regardless of when they left the job.
If the party you contact responds that you are not entitled to a benefit, try to obtain a copy of the summary plan description. We can read the document and determine if we agree with that decision or not. Any correspondence you send should include delivery confirmation (return receipt).
If you are not satisfied with the conclusion you may:
- Contact the insurance company or financial institution that took over the obligation: If we have documents or evidence that the information in the records is wrong, we can go back to the employer and make a case.
- PBGC: if they took over the plan, we could appeal the determination of the benefit with them.
- Ongoing plan: If the pension plan is ongoing, we have recourse. If the administrator says we are not eligible for the benefits or don’t seem to add up to our figures, there is recourse; The best initial sources are ESBA (Appendix A) or Pension Counting project (Appendix B) – these resources can review our records and advise us.
Much of the information in this post is from a report prepared by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, and their full publication is here.
We hope this has been helpful. When searching for a lost pension, there are no guarantees of success, but one thing we know for sure is that if we make no effort to track down a plan, whatever money owed to you will never come home.