Don’t you think it would be next to impossible to forget about or lose track of one of your bank accounts? How about not remembering a safety deposit box crammed with stocks, insurance policies and jewelry? No way, right?

Well, millions of Americans do forget about their accounts. Sometimes they move and the bank can’t find them, or they die without telling family members about an account.

Susan Burrage of Rockport, Mass., is $5,500 richer after finding money and stock her mother left behind without telling anyone. Burrage’s mother was living in St. Petersburg, Fla., at the time of her death. One day Burrage got a letter from a company saying they had sent her mother’s stock account to the state of Florida because the account had been dormant for so many years. Burrage then got a letter from another company that specializes in locating people and heirs who have unclaimed money.

“But they were going to take a percentage of the money,” says Burrage. “So I decided to find out on my own what was going on. When I called Florida to ask about the stock account, they said they had a file of missing things — five different accounts.”

What happened was the accounts were dormant so long they were escheated to the state. Every state has its own time frame. A savings account might be considered dormant if there were no transactions for 365 days. That dormant account, depending on the state, would be escheated, or handed over, to the state anywhere from three to five years later. Some banks charge a fee when an account goes dormant, but they have to try to notify the customer first. They send a notice to the last known address and remind the customer there hasn’t been any activity on the account. Some customers respond, others ignore the letter and some never get the letter because they’ve moved or died.

Thirty days before the account is about to be escheated to the state, the bank makes a last ditch effort to find the customer. At First Union headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., that job falls to Te Messerle and the eight people in her department. They take that job very seriously.

Show me the money

“Last year we escheated to all 50 states,” says Messerle. “We started with 43,855 accounts. By the time we finished we actually only turned over 8,337 accounts to the states. We started with $317,793,987.65 and turned over $14,004,925.47. We saved the bank $303 million.”

Banks want to find people who have dormant accounts. They don’t want to send that money to the state; they want to keep it in the bank.

Messerle says she was determined to find an elderly woman who had a $110,000 dormant account.

“Elderly people are warned about scams, so sometimes it’s hard to make contact with them. We have a gentleman who’s very good with this. He called her but she didn’t want to provide some of the information he needed over the phone. We actually sent the branch manager to her house. We got her the money.”

Sometimes it’s a thankless job. Messerle and her crew often spend a lot of time tracking down people only to get an irate phone call.

“The letters we send have to be very specific — ‘please sign this letter otherwise the account will be considered abandoned and turned over to the state.’ We also give an 800 number. They call and get very angry — ‘You’re not going to take my money away …'”

But more often people are happy to find there’s money they didn’t know about.

Robert Vernick of Wynnewood, Pa., found out his father had passed away without letting anyone know he had set up a burial fund for Vernick’s mentally disabled brother. It was a red tape mess because the father had moved from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and no one had been given power of attorney over the account. Te Messerle helped Vernick get it all straightened out and the $4,000 fund is now in the bank.

“Te was an angel — I would still have been chasing my tail. It was a tremendous surprise to find out about the money and a relief. If something happened to my brother I would have had to lay out the money,” says Vernick.

When an account is escheated, the states also are supposed to make an effort to contact the owner or heir.

Joy Koerber, a specialist with Florida’s Unclaimed Property division, says her state has more than $700 million in nearly 3 million unclaimed accounts. By her estimate, one in seven Floridians has unclaimed property.

“We publish in newspapers plus we have a database we give the Department of Motor Vehicles so when someone renews their license a flag comes up. We also contact database services such as credit reporting companies to get more current addresses. We try a lot of avenues to connect people with their money.”

Safety deposit boxes

It’s not just bank accounts and safety deposit boxes that get escheated to states. The list includes insurance policies, pensions, stock accounts, trust funds, utility deposits, rent deposits, mortgage insurance refunds and even store gift certificates that go unclaimed. That’s not counting things such as undeliverable Social Security checks and Federal tax refunds that are escheated to the Federal government.

But some of the most interesting stuff is in safety-deposit boxes.

“We had a seven-carat diamond solitaire, eight bottles of Chateau Lafitte Rothschild from 1919 and personal pictures of actress Kim Novak and this lady she went on a trip to Paris with and a couple letters they had written to each other,” says Koerber.

Koerber says the contents of safety deposit boxes are kept for a couple years and then sold at auction. The money is then put into an account in the owner’s name.

There’s no statute of limitations on unclaimed property. In essence, the state acts as custodian, and the money is held in trust for whenever the owner or heir claims it. Recovering an account once it’s been escheated to a state can take anywhere from a few weeks to a year or more. States can set their own time frame for processing a claim once all the documentation has been received. New York, for instance, which has $4 billion in unclaimed property, asks people to allow six months for their claim to be reviewed. If more documentation is needed, the process can drag on.

What can you do to make sure your accounts don’t become dormant?

It’s simple enough — make a transaction once a year. Read your mail — don’t ignore notices from the bank. And, perhaps most important, share information with family members. Let them know what accounts you have and where they are. Give someone the power of attorney in case something happens to you.

If a locator or tracer company notifies you that you have unclaimed property, try to track it down yourself. Locator companies want a percentage of the loot. You might be able to claim it for free because most of the states’ unclaimed property divisions don’t charge a fee.

If you’re looking for property, many states have an unclaimed property page on their Web site, but an easier way to search is by first visiting missingmoney.com, which is sponsored by The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Some 28 states can be searched all at once. Other states are being added to the site, and the search is free. Just enter a name and you’ll be taken step-by-step through the process.

If you find property and it’s in your name, you’ll probably need a driver’s license or picture ID in addition to something such as an old utility bill to prove you lived at that address at that time. If you’re an heir, you’ll probably be required to send a marriage or death certificate as well as proof of identification.

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