Learn how to deal with an orphaned 401K

LOS ANGELES Dick Allen is enjoying the golden years of retirement. He worked hard to get there. One of his jobs was for a small environmental company.

"I was running a warehouse for them," said Allen.

Eventually, Dick was laid off and the company went belly up. When he went to change his 401K plan, he got a big surprise.

"They said, 'Well, you're locked up,'" said Allen.

Dick had no access to his cash. His 401K plan was "orphaned." What does that mean?

"An orphaned 401K plan is a plan where there is no fiduciary left to make the decisions necessary to give participants their money," said David Wray from Council of America. "So people are left in a state of suspension."

Retirement and pension plans can be abandoned after a merger, when an owner dies, or after bankruptcy.

"If a 401K plan has been abandoned, it is extremely difficult for an individual participant to actually get access to his account," said Virginia Smith from the U.S. Department of Labor.

That's why the Department of Labor launched the Abandoned Plan Program. The goal? To make sure orphaned funds can be distributed in a timely and efficient manner.

"It's a streamlined way for financial institutions who are holding assets of an abandoned plan to actually terminate the plan and distribute the assets to the participants," said Smith.

The Department of Labor oversees things to ensure each plan is terminated properly.

"It's kind of a strange thing. You can't get your own money," said Allen.

How do you know if your money is at risk? Watch for signs of financial trouble within your company.

"The signals are very clear, you know, the company is laying off critical staff members," said Wray. "They're cutting expenses that, you know, are really necessary to continue as they make last ditch efforts to survive."

Also, monitor your benefits statements closely even if your company closes or you leave a job on your own. If information stops, contact the plan sponsor and ask questions.

If you are unable to get reasonable answers or to get any answers at all from your plan sponsor, then you should contact the Department of Labor.

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