Finance

How to Find Your Lost Government Money

According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, every U.S. state, including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta, Canada have unclaimed property programs that actively and continuously find owners of lost and forgotten assets.

Unclaimed property laws have been around since at the 1930s, but have become much broader and more strictly enforced in the last 25 years. Unclaimed property is one of the original consumer protection programs.

Over 2.5 million claims totaling $2.25 billion dollars was returned to rightful owners in 2011; with the average claim around $892. Currently $41.7 billion is waiting to be returned by states unclaimed property programs. Claims can be made into perpetuity in most cases – even by heirs.

Could some of those billions be yours? Most states participate in MissingMoney; start your search there.

What is unclaimed property? Sometimes referred to as abandoned, unclaimed property refers to accounts in financial institutions and companies that have had no activity generated or contact with the owner for one year or a longer period. Common forms of unclaimed property include savings or checking accounts, stocks, uncashed dividends or payroll checks, refunds, traveler’s checks, trust distributions, unredeemed money orders or gift certificates (in some states), insurance payments or refunds and life insurance policies, annuities, certificates of deposit, customer overpayments, utility security deposits, mineral royalty payments, and contents of safe deposit boxes.

What happens to these accounts that have no activity? Acting in the best interest of consumers, each state has enacted an unclaimed property statute that protects your funds from reverting back to the company if you have lost contact with them. These laws instruct companies to turn forgotten funds over to a state official who will then make a diligent effort to find you or your heirs. Most states hold lost funds until you are found, returning them to you at no cost or for a nominal handling fee upon filing a claim form and verification of your identity. Since it is impossible to store and maintain all of the contents that are turned over from safe deposit boxes, most states hold periodic auctions and hold the funds obtained from the sale of the items for the owner. Some states also sell stocks and bonds and return the proceeds to the owner in the same manner.

How do I begin my free search? Companies are required by law to send funds from lost accounts to the state of the owner’s last known address. That means you could potentially have unclaimed property in every state that you have resided. The MissingMoney website contains the official collective records from most state unclaimed property programs. NAUPA will link you to every state unclaimed property program Web site where you can search. Both sites are free.

If searching is free, why do I receive notices that there is a charge to search? Several business firms have used the states’ freedom of information acts to obtain owner information. These firms notify individuals that they will conduct a search for unclaimed property in their name for a fee. Many states do not even provide complete records to these firms to protect your privacy. The bottom line is that you may pay them to search if you wish, but all the information is accessible free of charge by searching the state databases or MissingMoney, or by contacting any state unclaimed property office.

I have received a notice that property has been found, but there is a fee to obtain it. There are many businesses, sometimes called finders or locators, which find legitimate lost property for owners and offer to inform them of how to obtain it for a fee, usually a percentage of the total (some states limit the fee to 10 percent). Sometimes, companies will hire these firms to find you before they turn the funds over to the state. Ultimately the finder will ask you to sign a contract. The majority of firms that provide these services work within the law, but there are also many unclaimed property scams across the United States. Before signing any contract from a firm of this type, we recommend that you be cautious and contact the unclaimed property office in your state for more information.

How do I keep my property from becoming lost in the future? Remember, property becomes lost due to a company having no communication with the owner. You should contact institutions that hold your money or property every year and especially when there is an address change or change in marital status. For security reasons, most financial institutions do not forward mail. Keep accurate financial records and record all insurance policies, bank account numbers with bank names and addresses, types of accounts, stock certificates, and rent and utility deposits.

Cash all checks for dividends, wages, and insurance settlements without delay. Respond to requests for confirmation of account balances and stockholder proxies. If you have a safe deposit box, record its number, bank name and address, and give the extra key to a trusted person.

Finally, prepare and file a will detailing the disposition of your assets.