401(K) Plans:

Greater Protections Needed for Forced Transfers and Inactive Accounts

GAO-15-73: Published: Nov 21, 2014. Publicly Released: Dec 22, 2014.

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Charlie Jeszeck
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What GAO Found

When a participant has saved less than $5,000 in a 401(k) plan and changes jobs without indicating what should be done with the money, the plan can transfer the account savings—a forced transfer—into an individual retirement account (IRA). Savings in these IRAs are intended to be preserved by the conservative investments allowed under Department of Labor (DOL) regulations. However, GAO found that because fees outpaced returns in most of the IRAs analyzed, these account balances tended to decrease over time. Without alternatives to forced-transfer IRAs, current law permits billions in participant savings to be poorly invested for the long-term. GAO also found that a provision in law allows a plan to disregard previous rollovers when determining if a balance is small enough to force out. For example, a plan can force out a participant with a balance of $20,000 if less than $5,000 is attributable to contributions other than rollover contributions.

Some 401(k) plan participants find it difficult to keep track of their savings, particularly when they change jobs, because of challenges with consolidation, communication, and information. First, individuals who accrue multiple accounts over the course of a career may be unable to consolidate their accounts by rolling over savings from one employer's plan to the next. Second, maintaining communication with a former employer's plan can be challenging if companies are restructured and plans are terminated or merged and renamed. Third, key information on lost accounts may be held by different plans, service providers, or government agencies, and participants may not know where to turn for assistance. Although the Social Security Administration provides individuals with information on benefits they may have from former employers' plans, the information is not provided in a consolidated or timely manner that would be useful to recipients.

The six countries GAO reviewed address challenges of inactive accounts by using forced transfers that help preserve account value and providing a variety of tracking tools referred to as pension registries. For example, officials in two countries told GAO that inactive accounts are consolidated there by law, without participant consent, in money-making investment vehicles. Officials in the United Kingdom said that it consolidates savings in a participant's new plan and in Switzerland such savings are invested together in a single fund. In Australia, small, inactive accounts are held by a federal agency that preserves their real value by regulation until they are claimed. In addition, GAO found that Australia, the Netherlands and Denmark have pension registries, not always established by law or regulation, which provide participants a single source of online information on their new and old retirement accounts. Participants in the United States, in contrast, often lack the information needed to keep track of their accounts. No single agency has responsibility for consolidating retirement account information for participants, and so far, the pension industry has not taken on the task. Without a pension registry for individuals to access current, consolidated retirement account information, the challenges participants face in tracking accounts over time can be expected to continue.

Why GAO Did This Study

Millions of employees change jobs each year and some leave their savings in their former employers' 401(k) plans. If their accounts are small enough and they do not instruct the plan to do otherwise, plans can transfer their savings into an IRA without their consent. GAO was asked to examine implications for 401(k) plan participants of being forced out of plans and into these IRAs.

GAO examined: (1) what happens over time to the savings of participants forced out of their plans, (2) the challenges 401(k) plan participants face keeping track of retirement savings in general, and (3) how other countries address similar challenges of inactive accounts. GAO's review included projecting forced-transfer IRA outcomes over time using current fee and return data from 10 providers, and interviews with stakeholders in the United States, Australia, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Congress consider (1) amending current law to permit alternative default destinations for plans to use when transferring participant accounts out of plans, and (2) repealing a provision that allows plans to disregard rollovers when identifying balances eligible for transfer to an IRA. Among other things, GAO also recommends that DOL convene a taskforce to explore the possibility of establishing a national pension registry. DOL and SSA each disagreed with one of GAO's recommendations. GAO maintains the need for all its recommendations.

For more information, contact Charlie Jeszeck at (202) 512-7215 or jeszeckc@gao.gov.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2018, Congress proposed the "Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act of 2018" that would provide--among other things--an alternative default destination for forced transfers from 401(k) plans. The Lost and Found described in this legislation would be one way to better protect the retirement savings of individuals who change jobs and leave behind inactive accounts. It would not only allow for the savings to be invested in a manner likely to preserve the balance over time, but would also centralize the information about the savings, making it easier for individuals to reclaim.

    Matter: To better protect the retirement savings of individuals who change jobs, while retaining policies that provide 401(k) plans relief from maintaining small, inactive accounts, Congress should consider amending current law to permit the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of the Treasury to identify and designate alternative default destinations for forced transfers greater than $1,000, should they deem them more advantageous for participants.

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: There has been no congressional action as of March 2020. Although bipartisan legislation proposed in February 2018 discussed changes to the amount of vested savings that could be forced out of a 401(k) plan, it did not address whether or not the definition of vested savings for this purpose would continue to exclude rollovers. As we reported in GAO-15-73, rollover savings are always vested when they are transferred into a plan account. If Congress looks further at amending rules related to the threshold for forced distributions, and particularly if that threshold is raised, it bears consideration whether all of an individuals' vested savings--including rollover amounts--should be included in the calculation of that threshold.

    Matter: To better protect the retirement savings of individuals who change jobs, while retaining policies that provide 401(k) plans relief from maintaining small, inactive accounts, Congress should consider amending current law to repeal the provision that allows plans to disregard amounts attributable to rollovers when determining if a participant's plan balance is small enough to forcibly transfer it.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Priority recommendation

    Comments: As of December 2019, the Department of Labor (DOL) has not allocated staff or other resources to look at convening a task force of stakeholders to consider the need for a national pension registry. The agency previously noted the PBGC's expansion of its registry of accounts left in closed defined benefit plans to include accounts in 401(k) plans. However, PBGC's expansion included only transfers from terminating 401(k) plans, not from active plans. In February 2018, bi-partisan legislation was proposed to create a national, online registry for much of Americans' retirement savings account information, particularly those accounts which might otherwise become lost. To create the proposed "Retirement Savings Lost and Found" or something similar would require coordinated regulatory action on the part of multiple agencies, which could only benefit from the initial work and findings of a pension registry task force. The need for access to consolidated online information about multiple 401(k) plan accounts is only growing. Therefore, we continue to recommend that DOL facilitate a task force of stakeholders to identify and discuss legal and other logistical issues critical to the potential creation of a national pension registry.

    Recommendation: To ensure that individuals have access to consolidated online information about their multiple 401(k) plan accounts, the Secretary of Labor should convene a taskforce to consider establishing a national pension registry. The taskforce could include industry professionals, plan sponsor representatives, consumer representatives, and relevant federal government stakeholders, such as representatives from Social Security Administration, Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and Internal Revenue Service, who could identify areas to be addressed through the regulatory process, as well as those that may require legislative action.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA disagreed with this recommendation, but did seek legal guidance to determine if it is permissible to include a general statement encouraging potential beneficiaries to pursue any external pension benefits in its benefit Statement. SSA's Office of the General Counsel determined that it would be permissible as long as it includes information required by law and the information is accurate. However, as of March 2020, SSA continues to believe that adding such information would place SSA in a position to respond to issues or questions about ERISA and private pension plans, which SSA considers to be outside its mission and about which the agency has no firsthand legal or operational knowledge. While we appreciate SSA's concern about providing information or advice about private pension plans, the agency already has a procedure for responding to such inquiries. The agency's Notice of Potential Private Retirement Benefit Information directs recipients to contact DOL with any questions about private retirement savings. We would expect that any increase in individuals asking SSA about their retirement savings, which could result from making information on vested benefits more accessible, could be handled in the same way. SSA said it also believes that the current benefit Statement adequately covers the fact that people need other savings, pensions, and investments and the agency sends notices to people who may quality for other pensions. We welcome SSA's efforts to raise awareness about the role of private retirement savings in ensuring financial security and in to notify individuals of potential benefits. However, these efforts do not supplant the need for individuals to have early and ongoing access to complete information on their potential plan benefits. In February 2018, bipartisan members of Congress introduced legislation that would make this possible. The Retirement Savings Lost and Found Act of 2018 (S. 2474) would house SSA's data on potential private retirement benefits in a secure database, which would be searchable online by participants and beneficiaries prior to retirement. Whether the legislation is enacted or not, we continue to believe that SSA should work to make its valuable data on potential vested plan benefits more accessible to individuals before retirement.

    Recommendation: To ensure that 401(k) plan participants have timely and adequate information to keep track of all their workplace retirement accounts, the Social Security Administration's Acting Commissioner should make information on potential vested plan benefits more accessible to individuals before retirement. For example, the agency could consolidate information on potential vested benefits, currently sent in the Potential Private Retirement Benefit Information notice, with the information provided in the Social Security earnings and benefits statement.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: As of April 2020, DOL had not taken action on this recommendation. In 2019, DOL noted that it was engaged more generally with a range of stakeholders on issues surrounding missing and unresponsive participants with the goal of helping plans to locate and pay retirement benefits to missing participants and beneficiaries. We continue to encourage DOL to expand the safe harbor for IRAs created for forced transfers to include investment alternatives more likely to preserve principal and even increase it over time, such as what is permitted for qualified default investment alternatives under the safe harbor for automatic enrollment.

    Recommendation: To prevent forced-transfer IRA balances from decreasing due to the low returns of the investment options currently permitted under the Department of Labor's safe harbor regulation, the Secretary of Labor should expand the investment alternatives available. For example, the forced-transfer IRA safe harbor regulations could be revised to include investment options currently under the qualified default investment alternatives regulation applicable to automatic enrollment, and permit forced-transfer IRA providers to change the investments for IRAs already established.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor


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