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Money Maze: Retirees Turn Detective to Find 'Lost' Pensions


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Real Clear Investigations

When Sam Semilia toted up his retirement finances, he was pretty sure that he was due a pension from his time working as a steam engineer for the Diamond Crystal salt company four decades before. Salty is one way to describe the search for his money, a four-year odyssey filled with shredded paper trails and assorted dead ends, along with a brief history of modern American capitalism.

These obstacles included the fact that while Diamond Crystal was still a familiar brand, it had been bought and sold by several companies through the years – each one newly responsible for old pensioners. As he traced that snaking path, he found that his original paperwork may have no longer existed, as business records mostly went digital since he left the company in 1979. "I don't know how someone would do it without documents," said Semilia, 71. "I kept all of them, including a worksheet and cover letter, but it still wasn't good enough."

 

Over the past several decades, as a wave of stock-market crashes, recessions, de-industrialization, and the pandemic have roiled U.S.-based companies, millions of workers like Semilia have been impacted by “lost” or terminated pensions. Many may not know how to claim the money they earned.

While business owners are required to inform participants when a defined benefit plan shuts down or “terminates,” the process is often far from smooth – especially when workers have moved. As a result, it is often supremely challenging to know where to look or whom to ask, even when pensioners have all their records.

At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars from defined benefit (DB) pension plans – the “old-style,” single-employer plans that used to guarantee lifetime benefits. More than 61,000 defined benefit plans have been terminated by employers over the past 30 years. These pensions used to guarantee payments at retirement, but now they are rarely offered to new corporate employees, although they are more often used in the public sector.:snip:

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