The U.S. Department of Labor is actively investigating large defined benefit plans to make sure they are searching for and paying missing pension participants who’ve reached their required beginning date. The required beginning date is usually April 1 following the calendar year someone reaches the age of 70½.

What do you, a plan administrator, say in the notice you send your missing participants, whether by mail or e-mail? It can be tricky.

9 Pointers for Contacting Missing Pension Participants
You want missing pension participants to respond to your notice, but you face several obstacles:

  1. Someone other than the participant might read the notice. The reader might know the participant or not. Either way, you have concerns about privacy and potential fraud.
  2. The participant might read the letter but not believe it is legitimate. This could especially be true if one pension plan merged with another, or if the employer sponsoring the plan changed hands or changed names.
  3. The participant might procrastinate, forget to respond or feel the effort of applying and supplying necessary documentation isn’t worth it.
  4. You don’t want to reveal too much information to anyone who happens to read the notice, but you want to provide enough to gain the participant’s attention, trust and motivation.

[Related: Certificate in Retirement Plans—February 27-March 4, 2017, Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, Lake Buena Vista, Florida]

Save 25% on e-learning coursesNine Dos and Don’ts When Contacting Missing Pension Participants

  1. Do not include very personal information in the notice, like dates of birth or Social Security numbers.
  2. Do include the name of the company the participant worked for. If the name has changed, mention what it was formerly called and what it is called now.
  3. Do consider mentioning the approximate dates he or she worked there to trigger his or her memory and enhance your legitimacy.
  4. Do provide your organization’s physical and/or mailing address, e-mail address, phone number and website so the recipient can check it out and verify that your organization is authentic.
  5. Do make it easy to respond. For example, include a postage-paid reply envelope if sending by regular mail.
  6. Do provide motivation. Remind the participant if he or she doesn’t take the pension now, it will just stay in the plan and very likely be forfeited at his or her death.
  7. Do follow your legal counsel’s advice. Do include any language they recommend, but don’t put it right at the beginning.
  8. Do try to make the notice friendly. Here’s a sample:

Dear (participant’s name):

Remember when you worked at _________? You may have forgotten, but our records show you earned credit toward a retirement pension benefit when you worked there.

Because you are over the age of 70½, the IRS and U.S. Department of Labor say we should start paying your pension if we can locate and positively identify you. If you do not take your pension now, it will remain in the plan and would be forfeited when you die.

We can send you application forms, an estimate of how much your pension would be and a time line of when to expect payment.

To get the process rolling, return a copy of this letter to us with your date of birth, marital status, spouse’s date of birth, and current address. If you don’t feel comfortable sending this information by mail, you can contact us by phone or e-mail. [Include spaces for the participant to write in date of birth, marital status, and spouse’s date of birth if you want.]

To receive a pension, you will need to complete an application and supply certain documents verifying your date of birth, marital status and, if married, your spouse’s date of birth.

Feel free to contact us:

By phone ____________

By mail _______________________

By e-mail ____________________

Visit our website at ______________


XYZ Pension Plan Office

  1. The final “do” may be the most important of all: Do train your staff to handle inquiries that will come in from the participant, a relative or someone completely unknown. Money and death are emotional topics. Help your staff develop skills to interact appropriately with people who are overjoyed, annoyed, suspicious or even upset.

I’ll close with some good news for multiemployer plans and DC plans . . . the PBGC is expanding a program that can help with missing participants if your plan terminates.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) runs a program for terminated defined benefit single employer plans called the Missing Participants Program. This program connects people who were missing when their pension plans terminated to their retirement benefits.

In September 2016, PBGC proposed expanding the program to cover missing participants in terminated defined contribution plans (such as 401(k) plans and profit-sharing plans) and multiemployer plans. Terminating defined contribution plans could transfer benefits of missing participants to PBGC, which would then hold the money, add the missing participant to its online searchable database, and periodically search for the participant. Participant accounts would not be reduced by ongoing maintenance fees or distribution charges and would be paid out with interest.

PBGC anticipates the expanded program will begin in 2018, after public comments to the proposed regulations are reviewed and final regulations are published.

In the meantime, keep on searching.


PBGC’s Overview of the Proposed Missing Participants Program for Defined Contribution and Other Terminated Plans
Voya—PBGC Proposes Missing Participant Program for Terminated Defined Contribution Plans
McCarter & English LLPPension Plan Sponsors Beware: The Department of Labor Is Investigating Plans That Fail to Locate and Pay Benefits to Terminated Vested Participants
Segal ConsultingDOL Investigating Timely Payment of Pensions to Terminated Vested Participants Nationwide
U.S. Department of Labor Field Assistance Bulletin 2014-01 (even though this FAB is aimed at defined contribution plans, the same steps for locating missing participants should be used by defined benefit plans)

Lois Gleason, CEBS
Manager, Reference/Research Services at the International Foundation

Developed by International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans staff. If you reproduce or republish this information, please cite the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans as your source. This does not constitute legal advice. Consult your plan professionals for legal advice.

Lois Gleason, CEBS

Manager, Reference/Research Services at the International Foundation Favorite Foundation service/product: The Employee Benefits Survey (conducted every few years; it is very comprehensive) Benefits-related topic top picks: Affordable Care Act, multiemployer pension plans Favorite Foundation conference moment: Working the bookstore/information center at the Employee Benefit Symposium and meeting our members Personal Insight: Lois loves reading, especially literary classics like Jane Eyre and North and South. A Tale of Two Cities isn’t bad either. Every morning at breakfast she reads the daily newspapers…. yes, she still gets the paper versions because it’s not a big deal if a little coffee spills on them.

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