Use to Find Millions in Unclaimed Pensions

Terminated pension funds waiting for over 38,000 people

bag full of money
Are You Missing an Unclaimed Pension?. John Kuczala/Getty Images

As of 2014, the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC), reports there are more than 38,000 people who, for any number of reasons, have not claimed pension benefits they are owed. Those unclaimed pensions are now north of $300 million, with individual benefits ranging from 12 cents to almost $1 million.

In 1996, PBGC launched the Pension Search directory Web site to help people who may have forgotten about, or been unaware of pensions they earned during their career. The pension database can be searched by last name, company name, or state where the company had its headquarters. The online service is absolutely free and available 24-hours a day.

Updated regularly, the current list identifies some 6,600 companies, primarily in the airline, steel, transportation, machinery, retail trade, apparel, and financial services industries that closed pension plans in which some former workers could not be found.

Benefits waiting to be claimed range from as little as $1 up to $611,028. The average unclaimed pension is $4,950. The states with the most missing pension participants and money to be claimed are: New York (6,885/$37.49 million), California (3,081/$7.38 million), New Jersey (2,209/$12.05 million) Texas (1,987/$6.86 million), Pennsylvania (1,944/$9.56 million), Illinois (1,629/$8.75 million) and Florida (1,629/$7.14 million).

Does It Work? ​

According to PBGC, in the past 12 years, more than 22,000 people have found $137 million in missing pension benefits through the Pension Search program. The states with the most found participants and pension money claimed are: New York (4,405/$26.31 million), California (2,621/$8.33 million), Florida (2,058/$15.27 million), Texas (2,047/$11.23 million), New Jersey (1,601/$9.99 million), Pennsylvania (1,594/$6.54 million) and Michigan (1,266/$6.54 million).

What to Do If You Don't Have Internet at Home

For those without access to the Internet at home, many local public libraries, community colleges, and senior centers make computers available to the public that can be used for searching the Pension Search directory. Searchers can also e-mail or if they believe they are entitled to a benefit.

What Happens If You Find a Missing Pension? ​

Once the PBGC is contacted by people who find their names in the directory, the agency asks them to provide more details including proof of age and other vital statistics. The identification process generally takes 4-6 weeks. After the PBGC receives a completed application, people currently eligible for a benefit should receive their checks within two months. Those entitled to future benefits will receive their benefits when they reach retirement age.

Things You Might Need to Claim Your Pension

Several documents may be required or helpful in proving proof of eligibility for a pension. These include:

  • A notification from the company of plan administrator that you are vested in the plan
  • An individual statement of annual plan benefits
  • A plan exit letter (sent by the employer) noting participation in the plan and a summary plan description showing the plan’s rules, including the rules for vesting
  • A Notice of Potential Private Pension Benefit Information, if sent by the Social Security Administration (SSA)

The SSA automatically sends a Notice of Potential Private Pension Benefit Information to people who may be due pensions when they apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits.

How Do Pensions Become "Lost?"

Many of the names in the Pension Search directory are workers with pensions whose former employers closed pension plans and distributed benefits. Others are workers or retirees missing from underfunded pension plans taken over by the PBGC because the plans did not have enough money to pay benefits. Included in the directory are people who may be able to document that they are owed a benefit, even though current PBGC records show that no benefit is due.

Some reasons pensions might go lost or unclaimed include:

  • The company went bankrupt or simply closed and vanished;
  • The company moved to another town, city, or state;
  • The company was bought by or merged with another company and given a new name; or
  • The company was divided into separate parts, none of which retained the company’s old name.

For More Information

The PBGC's booklet "Finding A Lost Pension also provides tips, suggests potential allies, and details numerous free information sources. It is particularly helpful for those trying to find pensions earned from former employers whose identity may have changed over the years because of changes in company ownership.

About the PBGC

The PBGC is a federal government agency created under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. It currently guarantees payment of basic pension benefits earned by 44 million American workers and retirees participating in over 30,000 private-sector defined benefit pension plans. The agency receives no funds from general tax revenues. Operations are financed largely by insurance premiums paid by companies that sponsor pension plans and investment returns.

Before 1974, private pensions were almost entirely unregulated. Back then, a worker might reach retirement age only to find that their nest egg, in the form of an ample pension, had completely vanished. Then, in 1974, Congress passed the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), establishing broad protections for many workers.

Under ERISA, the Department of Labor monitors pension plans to make sure they are responsibly managed. The Internal Revenue Service regulates pension plans for tax purposes. Finally, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation insures private defined benefit pension plans, to make sure that workers are not deprived of their accumulated benefits when a plan terminates.

However, not all pension plans are protected by this federal law. Here are the major exceptions to ERISA’s safeguards:

  • Only private-sector workers are protected, not employees of the federal government or state or local governments.
  • These protections do not apply if you left the company before the effective date of ERISA. For most plans, the effective date is 1976. But for some plans, the effective date might be as early as 1974, and for multiemployer plans, the effective date may be later than 1976. Nonetheless, you might still be owed a benefit, if you satisfied the provisions of the plan and were vested in the benefit when you left the job.
  • PBGC insures defined benefit pension plans only. 

A defined benefit pension plan is a type of pension plan in which an employer promises a specified pension payment, lump sum, or combination thereof on retirement that depends on an employee's earnings history, tenure of service, and age, rather than depending directly on individual investment returns.

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Longley, Robert. "Use to Find Millions in Unclaimed Pensions." ThoughtCo, Jul. 4, 2022, Longley, Robert. (2022, July 4). Use to Find Millions in Unclaimed Pensions. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "Use to Find Millions in Unclaimed Pensions." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).