HAVE YOU CLAIMED ALL THE MONEY BELONGING TO YOU THESE COULD BE RECORDS OF CASH YOU DESERVE, PART OF AN ESTIMATED $160 BILLION IN UNCLAIMED PROPERTY HELD BY THE GOVERNMENT AND CORPORATIONS.
(MONEY Magazine) – Some 35,000 filing cabinets (including the ones at left) containing records of $350 billion in federal employee retirement benefits are literally buried in Boyers, Pa. The facility is officially named the Retirement Operations Center of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, but it's called The Cave by the 400 people who work there, 268 feet below ground in a converted limestone mine tunnel. Since 1989, $1.3 billion in federal pension checks issued from this agency have either not been cashed or have been returned as undeliverable. No one at the Office of Personnel Management knows how much of that $1.3 billion has eventually been claimed.
And that's just the tip of the stalagmite. Experts estimate that the federal government has at least $25 billion in unclaimed funds belonging to taxpayers. Each year, Uncle Sam generates a horde of uncashed or undeliverable checks--from such payments as Social Security and veterans' benefits, bond sales and Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reimbursement of account holders in failed banks and S&Ls. Most federal agencies don't even keep track of such orphan dollars, let alone know the total they hold. Nor are they eager to look for the owners of this money or give it to state unclaimed-property offices, which by mandate seek the legal title holders or their heirs. Little has changed since a 1989 report by the General Accounting Office, the congressional watchdog agency, advised that turning unclaimed funds over to the states "would adversely affect the federal deficit." Says David Epstein, a Boston-based attorney who has written a five-volume study of unclaimed-property laws (Unclaimed Property Law and Reporting Forms, Matthew Bender): "It's the worst consumer rip-off taking place in the United States."
The state unclaimed-property offices acknowledge having another $13.4 billion in assets. But that seems to be a dramatic understatement: Experts interviewed for this article claim the true figure is closer to $35 billion. As you'll see in the 50-state table on page 113 compiled by David Folsom, author of Assets Unknown (Two Dot Press, $28.45; 800-286-5669) and Money, some states do a far better job than others when it comes to finding the owners of unclaimed funds.
Private corporations may be sitting on another $100 billion in unclaimed property, according to state auditors. That amount includes such items as forgotten bank accounts, trust accounts and stock certificates, uncashed paychecks and insurance checks, and utility deposits.
Think there's no chance you would ever forget about money you had coming to you? What about a merchandise refund that never arrived? Or those savings bonds you bought 30 years ago? Your stock in a company that has since been acquired? Maybe you've moved several times but failed to notify your bank or broker of your new addresses. You also might be entitled to a relative's bounty if he or she had no surviving spouse. In all these cases, it's up to you to bring the cash or property home. In this article, we'll show you who might have your unclaimed property and how to get your hands on it.
WHAT THE FEDS HAVE
Pension and insurance payments. The federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation takes over traditional pension plans (defined-benefit plans) when companies end them or go bankrupt. Currently, PBGC has names of 4,500 people it can't locate who are owed a total of $10 million. If you think you are due a pension, call (800-400-7242), send an e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) or search for your name on the agency's Website (search.pbgc .gov). The Office of Personnel Management (202-606-0500; www .opm.gov) oversees federal employees' retirement benefits. It does not track unclaimed funds, nor does it try to locate beneficiaries. "By law, employees must file claims to get benefits," says an OPM spokesman. "We don't have the resources to find them." The statute of limitations on collecting is 30 years from the date of the employee's death or age 115, whichever is later. In addition, the Social Security Administration (800-772-1213; www.ssa .gov) is holding checks worth $58 million that were returned or uncashed in 1997. The voided checks can be replaced at any time. The agency also has more than 200 million W-2s and other wage reports of employees whose names do not match the Social Security numbers on them, representing $217 billion in earnings not credited to Social Security accounts. (For more on this suspense file, see Money Newsline in the September issue.)
Government bonds. The biggest chunk of the $3.6 billion in unclaimed funds at the Bureau of Public Debt is in matured U.S. Savings Bonds that have not been redeemed. That's because the time between purchase and maturity is typically 30 to 40 years. You might be surprised to learn that the bureau takes no responsibility for finding the bearers of matured bonds either. Public affairs officer Peter Hollenbach says that it's "impractical" for the bureau to try to track down bond owners. "We don't have any unclaimed property, period," he says. If you believe you may have unredeemed bonds, write to the bureau giving any details you have about the missing securities (Bureau of Public Debt, Division of Transactions and Rulings, Parkersburg, W.Va. 26106; www.publicdebt.treas.gov).
Taxes. A small percentage (less than 5%) of the tax-refund checks that the Internal Revenue Service mails each year are returned or go uncashed. Still, the unclaimed total for 1996 is a stunning $6 billion. The agency makes no effort to locate taxpayers to whom it owes money, though. "The money is never lost," says IRS spokesman Larry Blevins. "The next time you file, we update your address." It's up to you, however, to get in touch with the agency. If you think you lost a refund check or never received one you were due, call the IRS at 800-829-1040.
WHAT THE STATES HAVE
A state receives unclaimed assets only after the company holding them can consider them "abandoned." Money is usually considered abandoned three to five years after the business has lost contact with you and three months after it makes a final effort to reach you at your last known address. If the company does not have a last known address, the assets go to the state in which it is incorporated. Once the state gets the assets, its unclaimed-property office will try to find the rightful owner. If the agency is not successful, it will hold the funds in perpetuity until the owner or next of kin comes to claim them. Overall, states collect about $2 billion in unclaimed property every year. As the table on page 113 shows, some states hold far more money than others; the amount often depends on how much comes in without a name and how long the state has been collecting unclaimed property. Connecticut ($250 million) has had a department since 1932. Wyoming ($6.9 million) didn't begin a program until 1993. Also, states such as New York ($3.9 billion) have mammoth totals because many securities firms have headquarters there.
Finding the rightful recipients of all that money can be daunting. The average state unclaimed-property office has almost 60,000 accounts per staff member. And addresses, if they exist, are typically three to five years old. Nevertheless, some states do everything from setting up booths at local fairs to sending staffers with lists of unclaimed funds to senior centers. In May, Louisiana held a kind of reverse telethon, taking to the airwaves to publicize its unclaimed funds. The TV pitch worked: The state returned $6.7 million as inquiries to the unclaimed-property office skyrocketed 230%. For years, Georgia did the legal minimum: publishing the names of lost property owners in local papers. Last May, however, the Peach State sent postcards to 7,000 people on its list. That mailing generated 5,000 responses; only 370 postcards came back undeliverable.
If you think a state may be holding something of yours, call its office of unclaimed property (see the table for phone numbers). You can also visit the Website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), used by 22 states to list the names of unclaimed-property owners.
While the top priority of state unclaimed-property offices is to return assets to you, the second task is to identify firms illegally holding your money instead of reporting it and turning it over. According to Anthony Andreoli, managing partner of a California-based C.P.A. firm that performs unclaimed-property audits on businesses for 36 states, "Once any business has been around for five years, it has something to report." Yet a recent survey of 19 states by author David Folsom shows only 2% to 6% of companies there are reporting unclaimed funds. One reason: More than half the states lack in-house auditors. State offices are increasingly hiring private auditors to find companies that are withholding funds, though. Last year, audits were responsible for almost 20% of the new money collected by California and New York.
"Our job is to obtain unclaimed property and give it back to the people," says Benny Spann, assistant director of unclaimed property in Louisiana. "Unfortunately, some in private industry think that it's none of the state's business." Last year, Indiana filed a complaint charging that $3 billion mail-order giant Spiegel did not comply with unclaimed-property laws and asked that the company make its books and records available for an audit. Spiegel refused, denying that any state had authority to conduct such an examination or that it had to report unclaimed property to Indiana or any other state where Spiegel has no physical presence. Spiegel would not make further comment on the case, which is still pending.
Some companies may not be aware of their obligations, however, and others may be plain baffled by the welter of state regulations governing unclaimed funds. All the same, there are ample indications of willful noncompliance by banks, insurance companies and retail giants that should know better. Auditor Andreoli cites a typical case. "One company I've found has payroll, stockholder distributions, supplier checks and gift certificates going back 30 years that have never been cashed," he says. "That's classic unclaimed property and must be turned over to the state."
WHAT COMPANIES HAVE
Stocks and corporate bonds. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, there are 3 million "lost" accounts holding more than $10 billion in stocks, bonds and dividends. Until recently, the SEC let banks and other securities transfer agents rely on only a last known address when trying to locate a missing account owner. As of Dec. 8, 1997, however, they must make at least two searches in an electronic database to find current addresses of securityholders. "If these banks had done that earlier, they could have found 60% to 80% of all lost shareholders," says Robert Shamansky, an Ohio lawyer and former congressman who is concerned about America's unclaimed property.
To locate missing securities, first check with your brokerage. Then call your state's unclaimed-property office or the one in the state in which the company whose securities you owned is based. Employee benefits. Consultants estimate that employers hold more than $10 billion in unclaimed disability, health, life insurance, pension and severance payments. That figure includes uncashed or returned checks as well as benefits that were never requested. Under federal law, the employer is responsible for trying to locate beneficiaries. If it can't find you or a check gets returned, many firms tell either the Internal Revenue Service or the Social Security Administration, which will try to get in touch with you. If you still can't be found, the company holds on to the money. Think you may be owed money by a former employer? Then call or write the company's human-resources department.
HOW TO GET WHAT YOU DESERVE
If you are searching for money that's rightfully yours, you can increase your chances of success by following this advice:
Be persistent, counsels Folsom: "Most property isn't turned over to the state promptly. If you don't find what you're looking for the first time, try again." Some tracing companies will offer to locate your assets for you. Before hiring one, carefully weigh its fees vs. your time and search costs. Companies may charge anywhere from a flat fee of $10 to 50% of what they find.
Be thorough. If you're looking for assets of a deceased relative, find out if he or she belonged to a professional organization that offered benefits such as group life insurance. Or maybe there was a mortgage insurance premium rebate for a home sold before the loan's term expired. To track down missing retirement benefits from an IRA or Keogh, check your or your relative's past federal or state tax forms, which would indicate whether contributions were made to a tax-deferred plan. If the forms are not available, seek out the tax preparer who completed them. If the last contribution to the plan was more than five years ago, call the state unclaimed-property office. For a pension or 401(k), try the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration of the Department of Labor (202-219-8771; dol.gov/dol/pwba).
Be prepared to prove that any unclaimed property you find belongs to you. Gather supporting documents including personal identification and proof that you are the legal heir to a relative's estate. Large amounts usually require more documentation than small ones. You can mail or fax the information in most states. This may seem like a fair amount of work, but if you wind up with found money, the effort will be well worth your while.