It wasn’t too long ago when a former colleague and I were reminiscing about the days when we both worked for the same wire service and found ourselves talking about the meager monthly pension we would be receiving when we turned 65 or 66. My share came in at less than $200 a month and I commented that every little bit helps.
Then I read an article on CBS MoneyWatch and realized $200 a month is $2,400 a year and that if I continue to live another 25 years that totals $60,000. Suddenly that $200 a month didn’t sound so "little." Then I realized I didn’t know how to get in touch with at my former employer to make sure I received that $200 a month.
According to Steve Vernon, writing for MoneyWatch, my first step should be to contact the human resources department and they should be able to direct me to the right person in charge of the pension plan known as the plan administrator. They are usually reachable by phone or email.
Fortunately, my former employer was still in business. But what if you worked for a company that had a pension but went bankrupt or out of business? Vernon says that might take a little more digging. In a bankruptcy filing you should be able to find out who has taken over the pension plan.
Vernon says that in many cases it could be 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. In some cases an annuity may have been purchased in your name by an insurance company. You then just have to find out the name of the insurance company and then call them.
According to Vernon, it’s more difficult to find lost pensions if your plan hasn’t been terminated because 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.
Just keep in mind that taking the time to track down your old pension will be time well spent. Vernon recommends that if you find yourself in this situation to start with the PBGC by going to www.pbgc.gov. 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, says Vernon, 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? Vernon says 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 Vernon says you should know about finding missing pensions:
- All of the above information only applies to traditional defined benefit pension plans; it doesn'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.
The bottom line is this. Most of us 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 we might spend tracking them down.