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, or 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.

Unclaimed property
Who has the money: What’s being held:
  • Banks
  • Corporations
  • Government offices
  • Utilities
  • Insurance companies
  • Credit unions
  • Payroll checks
  • Utility deposits
  • Dividends
  • Safe deposit boxes
  • Refund checks
  • Bank accounts
  • Stock certificates
  • Overpayments
  • Insurance proceeds
  • Gift certificates

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.

“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,” NAUPA suggests.

A reliability report on asset finder companies can also be obtained from the Better Business Bureau.

“There are fine lines some companies tip-toe around,” says Doug Broten, president of the Better Business Bureau in Fresno, Calif. “For instance, consumers should be leery of any company that asks for money before any service is performed.”

You may have claim to forgotten money if:
  • You have moved and failed to give your forwarding address to everyone who might owe you money.
  • It has been more than five years since your last deposit and/or withdrawal in your bank account.
  • You have changed jobs or retired and failed to pick up your final paycheck.
  • You have discontinued payments on an insurance policy.
  • You have forgotten to pay your safe deposit rental fee.
  • You have failed to receive a utility, cable or telephone deposit after stopping service.
Source: Florida Department of Financial Service

Asset finders may need to dig beyond state records to look for money not turned over to the state. Here are other areas that may uncover forgotten loot, according to the Better Business Bureau.

  • Retirement benefits. Review your list of previous jobs. Did you work at a company for at least five years? If so, you could be entitled to retirement benefits. Call the company to inquire.
  • Pensions. If you worked for a company that went bankrupt, don’t assume your pension is lost. There is a federal agency that currently insures millions of individual pensions. Write to: , Pension Search Program, 1200 K St. NW, Washington, D.C., 20005-4026 or call (202) 326-4000.
  • Bank accounts and utility deposits. You may have left town without closing your bank account or asking utility companies to return deposits. This is common among college students.
  • Union benefits. If you worked at a union job for more than five years, you may be vested in a pension plan and have a small life insurance policy. Check with the local or regional office of the union where you worked.
  • Life insurance benefits. More than 25 percent of life insurance policies that are sold go uncollected, according to industry experts. Search a deceased relative’s canceled checks for the name of an insurance company or agent.
  • Money from real estate. Don’t assume that a deceased relative’s property was sold for delinquent taxes. Some property is listed on tax rolls for years before being sold, and any money that exceeded the tax bill would have been sent to the state while waiting for heirs to claim it.
  • Frequent-flier miles. Most airlines allow an heir to claim a deceased relative’s frequent-flier miles, but some have a three-year limitation. Check credit card statements or the deceased relative’s travel agent for an account number.

Keep track of records, accounts

If you want to prevent your assets from ever reaching the unclaimed stage, Broten of the Better Business Bureau offers the following advice:

  • Keep accurate financial records and a detailed inventory of your bank accounts, stocks, safe-deposit boxes and life insurance policies.
  • Make sure a family member or trusted adviser knows where you keep your records.
  • Send a letter to all financial institutions holding your savings, checking accounts, IRAs and any other deposits such as certificate of deposits at least once every three years. The letter should contain your current address, phone number and other pertinent information.
  • Keep a checklist of all your financial assets, so that you won’t forget to notify the institutions holding them if you change your address.

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