When you meet with your Estate Planning lawyer, initially, they may ask you some of these questions: “Do you own a home?” “Do you own a business?” “Are you married?” The fact gathering necessary in an initial interview does not always allow the sort of leisurely chat friends would have over coffee. It’s important for your lawyer to gather the basics in the initial meeting, if no open ended questions are asked then assets important to your situation can be overlooked.
For example, approximately 4.2 trillion dollars is held today in 401(k) and other defined contribution plans. For public sector employees, a defined contribution plan may include a 403(b) or 457(b) plan. The amount of assets held in defined contribution plans is projected to grow in the future given that in the private sector and possibly even the public sector, a regular pension or defined benefit is going the way of the Dodo bird. While going forward employers may still provide matching or non-matching contributions to an employee’s account, the trend is clear that fewer employees and retirees in the future will be able to depend on a monthly pension check.
A 2009 study by human resources consulting firm Hewitt Old 401k Estate Planning Associates (now Aon Hewitt) concluded that 29 percent of former workers leave their 401(k) with a previous employer. This amounts to a huge sum of assets held by American workers that can be overlooked if you are asked only “do you currently have a retirement account?” The same study also stated that two-thirds of employers report that the company 401(k) plan is the primary retirement savings vehicle for employees. Clearly then gathering information regarding an old 401(k) plan is an important step in assessing your unique situation.
Determining the existence of an old 401(k) becomes even more important in the context of trust administration and probate. If you are a surviving spouse or beneficiary of someone who was not the plan participant, knowledge of the 401(k) can be even more diminished.
Your lawyer will need to ask you open ended questions about your history to discover unclaimed 401(k) assets. If your old employer no longer exists because of dissolution or merger, there are other ways your lawyer can use to find that information.
Up to date beneficiary designations are critical and you should review them at a minimum upon the major life events of birth, death, marriage, and divorce. Helping discover whether any 401(k) assets are unclaimed facilities a discussion about current assets and whether those beneficiary designations are also up to date.