Once upon a time, retirement in America was referred to as “a three-legged stool.” The first leg was your expected Social Security benefits, the second leg was your own personal savings and the third was something old-timers called a pension.
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A pension – also called a “defined benefit plan” – is a payment from a former employer that was (and sometimes still is) offered as a benefit with no contribution from you. The payment amount is based on years of service with that company. Once you’ve worked long enough to become “vested,” your benefit is guaranteed at a certain age and doesn’t end until you die. In many cases, a surviving spouse can receive a reduced benefit.
In 1975, there were 103,346 pension plans in the United States, a number that started to decline in the early 1990s and dwindled to just 46,577 plans by 2020. In many cases, the companies that promised those pensions have been sold, merged or gone out of business. However, many workers who are still entitled to receive those benefits lack any details about their pensions, including how to go about collecting them.
Unclaimed pensions are waiting to be claimed by at least 80,000 people, according to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), the federal agency that oversees retirement security for Americans. In some cases, the people entitled to those pensions don’t even know they’re eligible to receive payments.
Resources For Locating an Unclaimed Pension
If you’re looking for a missing pension – or want to find out if you qualify to receive one, try these resources:
Previous employers. Keep your contact information updated with the benefits administrator at the companies where you worked or their successors.
Legal assistance. The Pension Rights Center is an information resource that also runs Pension Counseling and Information Programs in 31 states. These programs provide free legal assistance for help with pensions, profit-sharing and retirement savings plans.
In states without counseling and information programs, the Pension Rights Center’s Pension Help America offers assistance in finding counseling projects, government agencies and legal service providers.
Meanwhile, the National Pension Lawyer’s Network, an affiliate of the Pension Rights Center, is a free service that can refer you to lawyers who take pension cases, sometimes pro bono.
Employee Benefits Security Administration. The EBSA is part of the U.S. Department of Labor and has free counselors who can answer pension questions. The E-Fast feature on the agency’s website can find pension plan annual reports going back to 2010, which explain how to file a pension claim. The Abandoned Plan Search Tool is also on the agency’s website.
Other resources. Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) can help with claiming a pension. You can call for assistance toll-free at 800-400-7242.
Meanwhile, the National Association of State Treasurers runs the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, a network of to help locate unclaimed assets. Additionally, the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits is run by PenChecks, the largest independent processor of retirement benefit distributions in the U.S.
As defined-benefit pension plans have been phased out in favor of 401(k) and similar accounts, workers may not know that they qualified for a pension many years ago. In addition, as older companies have been sold, merged or closed pension plans can lose track of vested employees. Even when a company has declared bankruptcy, pension benefits may be protected by the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. (PBGC)
Tips for Claiming Your Pension
There are a number of resources, as listed above, for locating a missing or unclaimed pension. If you think you once qualified for a pension, don’t assume that you’ll be contacted to claim it. Remember, just because you once worked at a company that offered a pension plan you may not have worked there long enough to become vested. In that case, your pension benefits would have been forfeited when you left the company. To see how any pension income might figure in your retirement plans, try SmartAsset’s retirement calculator. This free tool will estimate how much you’ll have when the time comes to retire.
In most cases, an old pension likely won’t pay enough benefits to live on. You’ll still need to figure out when and how to claim your Social Security benefits and maintain your own savings to support yourself in retirement. A financial advisor can help. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can interview your advisor matches at no cost to decide which one is right for you.
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