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Tracing lost pension funds

IT IS a relatively new problem in the world of Irish pensions, but it's one that is destined to get bigger.

Some workers are having difficulty finding their retirement plans because they have changed jobs quite frequently or their former employers have changed locations, been bought out by other companies or have changed their names.

Indeed, like dormant savings accounts, some experts reckon there is a lot of unclaimed money in the pensions system that is simply lost, forgotten about or even that the workers were unaware they had in the first place.

Some employees may need to go as far back as 40 years to trace lost funds.

"We estimate that there is up to €1bn in unclaimed money lying around in Irish pension schemes," says Michael Bradley of Dublin-based financial advisers Clear Financial.

The firm estimates that up to 10pc of all private pension funds have been forgotten or lost already. "That sounds like a lot, but it's still a relatively small proportion of the €70bn of total pension funds," he said.

"With a typical worker in Ireland now expected to have anywhere between five and 20 employers before they reach retirement, this problem can only get worse.

"Obviously, it's the smaller funds that are more likely to go missing, so even if 10pc of the over 800,000 private sector pension savers lose their smallest pension pot of, say, €5,000, that still amounts to €400m."

Clear Financial has helped a number of clients trace lost pension funds.

"We've helped them by contacting all possible insurance companies and any known previous employer to see if any missing funds can be identified," says Mr Bradley.

"We invariably find something, as it's amazing what people forget. In our trawl, we also often find forgotten life insurance policies, which sometimes have a value."

Pension money is held in trust for savers, who don't lose their entitlement to the money even if they lose track of it.

"It can happen quite easily, for example, where workers have left employment with more than two years' service and did not leave up-to-date forwarding addresses, particularly where they emigrated or where the employee left employment in their 20s or 30s and did not appreciate that their funds continued to grow in value," says Mr Bradley.

He said that even though these funds may have started out with small amounts, they can continue to grow, producing potential windfalls when retirement eventually comes around.

David Malone, head of operations at the Pensions Board, says it's certainly an issue that is on his organisation's radar, but he is not too worried.

"You do have to look at it in a certain context in Ireland. The country is quite small. With the exception of the public sector and a couple of the really big employers, most people wouldn't have too much of a problem as only a few big Irish employers were providing schemes.

"Many people working, at least up to now, have been working with the same company for most of their working lives, so the problem isn't likely to be on the same scale as, say, the UK."

Indeed, the problem became serious enough in the UK that the British government set up a national pension plan registry in the 1990s to allow workers to contact a single source to trace a lost pension. In its first year, the service received 18,000 requests and had a 95pc success rate in tracing lost pensions.

If you previously worked for companies in the UK in the past but are not sure of your entitlements, you can call or write to the Pension Tracing Service, a free service run by the Department of Work and Pensions.

There is no similar scheme here, but the Irish Association of Pension Funds (IAPF) recently added its voice to calls for a national tracing scheme.

"Former employees now exceed half of membership in some pension schemes and lost pensions will become inevitable if a tracing system is not in place," it said.

Pension schemes here are obliged to make every effort to trace all members of a scheme when their entitlements become due, but the organisation says tracking down people who have not seen entitlements for up to 40 years may be near-impossible in many cases.

It also pointed to the construction industry, which not so long ago had thousands of pensionable employees, many of whom have now emigrated.

"What is now needed is a robust system that can allow employees to trace their benefits as they move around – a national tracing service would go a long way to delivering this," said the IAPF, which held a seminar on the topic last September.

Some help may be on the way. The Department of Social Protection has a mail hosting service for pension schemes that are unable to locate scheme members, but is also working with the Revenue Commissioners to create some automated solution to help individuals trace lost pension entitlements.

If you can account for all your retirement savings but are not sure what to do next, financial adviser Liam Ferguson suggests transferring benefits from previous pension schemes into pension contracts of your own choosing, such as buy-out bonds or PRSAs.

"By doing so, you can keep track of your own pension funds and amalgamate some of them, thus eliminating the need to keep in touch with your former employers," he says.

Irish Independent Supplement