Mellody Hobson: Locate and Reclaim Your Lost Money

If you get excited over finding loose change between the couch cushions, you may want to search for more of your own lost money -- because the payoff could be big.

According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, states are holding more than $22.8 billion in unclaimed property, with approximately 26 million Americans entitled to part of this prize.

Unclaimed property is generally defined as any financial asset that has had no activity by its owner for a period of five years or more. This includes savings accounts, safety deposit boxes, checking accounts, uncashed dividends, stocks, customer deposits or overpayments, certificates of deposit, credit balances, refunds, matured life insurance policies and uncashed death benefit checks.

For example, if you have ever moved without getting your utility deposit back or forgotten about an old checking or savings account, you are entitled to those funds from your state. Unclaimed property is normally turned over to the state or federal government by financial institutions until the rightful recipient recovers them or until the property is sold at auction. Generally, unclaimed property refund checks average $700 to $1,000, so it is well worth the effort to determine if any money is owed to you.

Treasure Hunt

When it comes to hunting for your own hidden treasures, a majority of states have made finding and recovering unclaimed property pretty simple. In fact, most states publish all unclaimed property in the newspaper twice a year. Also, many states offer free, online access to property databases and even online claim forms.

NAUPA, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers, is an excellent source for information on unclaimed property. NAUPA's Web site, www.unclaimed.org, links to individual state Web sites, which allow you to search for your property.

If your state does not offer the ability to search unclaimed property records, you should call your state treasurer's office directly and ask to speak to someone in the unclaimed property division. That person may ask you to write a formal letter requesting information about unclaimed money owed to you. This letter will likely need to include your full name, last known address and Social Security number. In Illinois, for example, you must complete a form requiring your Social Security number, proof of the original address and your signature guaranteed by a notary public.

If the unclaimed property is not in your name, you must prove that you are the legal guardian, representative owner or heir to recoup it. Keep in mind, the state merely acts as a custodian until the rightful owner (or the owner's heir) makes a claim to the assets.

In addition to resources offered by states, there are fee-based services that will search for assets on your behalf -- often charging a fee equivalent to half of all your recovered assets. However, the Illinois state treasurer's office points out that its Web site, and those of most states, is identical to that of any fee-based search company -- so it is not necessary to use these fee-based services.

The Feds:

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