YORK (CNNfn) - The take can be as minimal as a few dollars or as extravagant as the deed to a beachfront house. But each year, billions of dollars in cash and property goes unclaimed, sitting idly in state government offices waiting to be accounted for.|
The most common lost wares are payroll checks, bank accounts, utility deposits and the contents of safe deposit boxes. But 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, a nonprofit organization based in Bismarck, N.D.
Moving details forgotten
How does the money end up in the hands of the state in the first place? The reasons vary, but often people move to another state and 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. If it goes unclaimed for one year to five years, it ends up in the gargantuan files of some state's Department of Revenue.
What else is left behind? Try the false teeth, two-carat diamond ring and documents signed by President Abraham Lincoln being held by the unclaimed property office in Missouri.
State governments hold $14 billion in unclaimed valuables. Each year, states return only 4 percent of that cache to its rightful owners.
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.
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.
"While about half of the states' unclaimed-property offices don't go out to find you, you can contact them," said Valerie Jundt, executive director of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
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.
Begin searching in the state's unclaimed-property division, usually part of the Department of Revenue or Treasury. 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, help collect it. It's perfectly legal, Jundt said, 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 it averages 10 to 25 percent of the total amount of the unclaimed property.
"Before entering into an agreement, we recommend that you contact your state unclaimed-property office and communicate with your consumer-fraud division to verify the authenticity of the finder," Jundt suggested.
You can also get a reliability report on asset finder companies from the Better Business Bureau.
"There are fine lines some companies tip-toe around," said 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."
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 42 million individual pensions. Write to: Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp., Pension Search Program, 1200 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
· 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 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 and 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.
· At least once every three years, send a letter to all financial institutions that hold your savings and checking accounts, IRAs and any other deposits such as certificate of deposits. The letter should contain your current address, phone number and other pertinent information.
· Keep a checklist of all your financial assets, so you won't forget to notify the institutions holding them if you change your address.
According to the Comptroller of the State of Florida, you may have a 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 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-box rental fee.
· You have failed to receive a utility, cable or telephone deposit after stopping service.
-- by Bank Rate Monitor for CNNfn