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States hold treasure trove of unclaimed property

The take can be as minimal as a few dollars or as extravagant as the deed to a beachfront house.

Each year, billions of dollars in cash and property go unclaimed, sitting idly in state government offices waiting to be accounted for.

While the most common lost wares are payroll checks, bank accounts, utility deposits and the contents of safe-deposit boxes, some states have car titles and deeds to homes, as well as expensive jewelry and art, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers located in Lexington, Ky.

Moving details forgotten
How does the money end up in the hands of the state in the first place? The reasons vary, but, typically, when people move to another state they forget to close bank accounts or neglect to leave a forwarding address so that important documents can be sent to them. The result? Money gets lost in the shuffle and, if it goes unclaimed for one year to five years, ends up in the gargantuan files of some state's Department of Revenue.

Banks, insurance companies, investment companies and other businesses are required by law to surrender inactive accounts to their state's department of revenue or similar office. The state serves as custodian of this money until the rightful owner claims it. The state never takes ownership of the money, there is no time limit for making a claim and no fee is charged.

Holders of the goods make serious efforts to locate owners through newspaper ads and mailings, as well as setting up booths at carnivals and malls. Some pay for television and radio advertisements.

"All states make a diligent effort to locate lost owners. Government unclaimed property programs are currently safeguarding $24 billion in 79.5 million accounts," according to officials at NAUPA. "States are now returning $1.2 billion annually as a result of 1.3 billion claims being filed."

The benefits of a little effort
Despite these efforts, for some consumers, the hard part is knowing how and where to look. But with a little determination, a phone book and the use of public records, the average person can find these hidden treasures easily -- without using an attorney or paying a company to find it.

Who has the money:

What's being held:

Where should you start? First, make a list of every state you have lived in and all the jobs you have held.

Make another list of deceased relatives, including their Social Security numbers and birth dates. Usually, all that is needed to claim a deceased person's property is proof of relationship, such as a birth certificate or a marriage license.

NAUPA recommends to begin searching in the state databases or Missingmoney.com on the Internet, or by contacting any state unclaimed property office. Repeat the process for every state where you or your deceased relatives lived.

While laws require that companies turn over abandoned stocks to the state, not all companies comply. If you have lost track of stocks, begin your inquiries directly with the company.

Many states publish newspaper advertisements listing the names of people who have money coming to them. If you check the list and don't find your name, keep searching. Most states advertise only the names of people whose property they received during that year.

Getting professional help
Some companies will locate unclaimed property and, for a percentage of what's due, will help collect it. The NAUPA says it's perfectly legal because the finder has obtained information from state records and by law is allowed to contract with people for a fee. The fee for assistance varies, but many states limit the fee to 10 percent of the total amount of the unclaimed property.

Next: "Before signing any contract ..."
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