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Keep Track of Pensions to Ensure Benefits


Think you're owed a pension from a company you can no longer find? You may be listed among the missing.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a government agency that stands behind the pension benefits of American workers, is looking for 13,300 people who are owed $43 million from terminated defined-benefit pension plans.

These people worked for companies that either went bankrupt or terminated their pension plans without distributing all the pension money to workers.

The 13,300 listed among the missing may well be the lucky ones. Thousands of retirees have lost track of their pensions because their former employers have moved, merged, changed their names or been spun off. Lost pensions are much harder to find in these instances because no government body is looking for these beneficiaries and no electronic database lists their names. These people must search on their own to find the companies that hold their pension money--a process that can take months.

Regulators believe that the bulk of missing workers on the PBGC list are people who moved or changed their names over the years and didn't think to notify former employers. Those employers subsequently went bankrupt, or turned underfunded pensions over to the government agency that insures them.

What these workers left behind is often substantial. The 13,300 individuals on the PBGC list are owed a total of $43 million. The range of specific benefits owed to each individual is vast--some are owed as little as $1, others as much as $172,000, pension officials said. The average benefit owed is about $3,000.

Many of the missing had last known addresses in just a few states: California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Connecticut. However, there are at least a few missing beneficiaries from every state except North Dakota. The 12 North Dakotans whom pension regulators once listed among the missing have all been found.

People who think they may be on the PBGC list can search the agency's beneficiary list on the Web at Those who find themselves among the missing will be instructed to send further identifying information to the agency. It takes a month or two to get a reply.

Those who believe they're missing a pension but are not on the PBGC list may have to do further research, says Ellen Bruce, associate director of the New England Pension Assistance Project in Boston.

There are about a dozen possible channels for tracking down a lost pension, Bruce said. The bulk of these, which range from unions and other former employees to the offices of the various secretaries of state, are listed in a publication called "Finding a Lost Pension," which is posted on the PBGC Web site. (Those without Internet access can request a paper copy of the publication, in English or Spanish, from PBGC Communications and Public Affairs Dept., 1200 K St. NW, Room 240, Washington, DC 20005-4026.)

It can be an exhaustive search, however. Some companies have been purchased and merged half a dozen times, which can make following the pension trail time consuming.

That's one reason pension experts say it's wise to first consider whether it's worth searching.

"The kind of people we see are the ones who say, 'I worked for a company many years ago, I wonder if I have a pension,"' said Judi Apfel, staff attorney at the Pension Rights Center in San Francisco. "They don't think about what the rules and regulations are."

Under those rules and regulations, a former employee is more likely to be owed a pension from a recent job than from a job that ended more than 20 years ago. That's mainly because pension laws have changed over the years, requiring that employees be vested--granted the permanent right to their pensions--in less time.

Before the mid-1970s, some companies did not pay pensions to a worker who left the employer before retirement age. After the Employee Retirement Income Security Act became effective in 1976, workers typically were vested within 10 years of starting work at a company. In the late '90s the rules were tightened again to give the vast majority of workers full rights to company pensions within five years.

Several pension advocacy groups have been attempting to get a national registry to provide one-stop-searching for lost pensions, but those efforts have not yet borne fruit.

Meanwhile, the roughly 40 million Americans who participate in defined-benefit plans should keep track of their pensions to make sure they're not someday ranked among the missing.

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