Every few months there’s a new story about unclaimed property. News crews travel to public places armed with computers and help people find thousands of dollars of unclaimed property. Fortunately, you can find your property yourself without paying fees to anyone else or waiting for a news crew to happen by.
What Is Unclaimed Property?
For the most part, unclaimed property is money you are owed, but payer had an invalid address. Often you’ll see old stock dividends, insurance settlements, and lost paychecks. The property may be listed under your maiden name if you’re married. It could also be the remnants of a childhood bank account that wasn’t closed before you moved. Banks are supposed to try to find you, but most don’t put much effort into it.
After an allotted amount of time, three years in California, the bank or other institution turns the funds over to the state, which then has use of the funds until you claim it. They are required to pay interest though, so it’s worth claiming even if the original property was $20 20 years ago.
Many people are startled to find that their safe deposit boxes listed in unclaimed property databases. If you don’t visit your bank or have communication with them in regards to the box for three years, they will break it open, sell the contents, and give the proceeds to the state. Due to a lawsuit, the practice is currently halted in California, but may continue in other states. If you have heirlooms or other irreplaceable property in the box, make sure you stay in touch with the bank.
How to Find Unclaimed Property
You can find unclaimed property easily online. First start with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. They can search the unclaimed databases for nearly 40 states. They have links and contact information for unclaimed property departments in the non-participating states and territories, which are:
Rhode Island is pending. Use the addresses on the site to write to the unclaimed property offices in Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Whether you use the NAUPA site or the state links above, start by searching for your full name and then expand out from there. Some debts are listed only by last name and first initial.
If you think a tax refund is missing, you can search for it through the Where’s My Refund tool on the IRS website.
Avoid Unclaimed Property Services
Years ago when the California site first went online, my boss’s old friend alerted him to the existence of some funds and I did the paperwork to reclaim it. My boss then received a notice from an unclaimed property service about an even larger sum in another state. I argued that we could have found the same information ourselves and therefore owed them nothing, but he felt an obligation to use them. The cost was 30% of the found amount, a rather significant sum in this case.
If you receive a notice, don’t contact the service. Instead go online and find the money yourself. Anyone can do a search for anyone, so you may want to perform searches for older relatives who are more likely to agree to a service’s hefty fees. In my boss’s case, he had to track down proof of his former address and submit it to the service, which then filled out a piece of paper and submitted it. We did all the legwork and they got money for nothing.
I don’t know if it’s fortunate or unfortunate, but I’ve never located unclaimed property for myself. I check once a year just to be safe though. You never know when money might go missing!