February 2, 2021
Wisconsin Finds Owners of Lost Pensions
Some people lose old retirement accounts because they forget about them. Others don’t want the hassle required to retrieve small amounts. And workers who change jobs fairly often can leave a lot of small accounts in their wake.
As a result, millions of dollars of retirement wealth – in pensions, 401(k)s, IRAs, profit-sharing plans, and annuities – sit in state repositories of unclaimed property.
So how can workers and retirees be united with their long-lost money?
To answer this question, a new study contrasts what has happened to unclaimed retirement accounts in two states with vastly different approaches to handling them: Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
Wisconsin in 2015 began to use Social Security numbers to automatically match up and return misplaced retirement accounts to their owners. As long as the account has a Social Security number attached to it, the state can find a resident’s current contact information in Wisconsin’s taxpayer records.
Under this system, two-thirds of the accounts were returned in 2016 and 2017, the researchers found.
Over the same two years in Massachusetts, only 3.4 percent of unclaimed retirement accounts were returned to their owners. Massachusetts takes the same passive approach used in most states: individuals must initiate the process by locating an account in the state’s unclaimed property database and then retrieve it themselves.
The University of Wisconsin study also uncovered an explanation for why some people are motivated to track down accounts on their own.
Using nearly 20 years of Massachusetts data, the researchers found that account holders were much more likely to recover large accounts, suggesting that “low-value accounts may be knowingly abandoned.”
The U.S. retirement system relies heavily on workers to save for the future, make their own decisions about how to invest their money and, once they retire, determine how fast to spend it. Requiring workers to recover old accounts is another way the system puts the burden on the individual.
But Wisconsin’s automatic matching system seems like a sensible way to make retirees whole – and an easy one in the computer age.
To read this study, authored by Corina Mommaerts and Anita Mukherjee, see “Lost and Found: Claiming Behavior in Abandoned Retirement Accounts.”
The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.