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.
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.
When it comes to federal savings bonds, government-guaranteed mortgage insurance refunds and pensions, the federal government does not maintain the same type of unclaimed money repository that states do. As such, in order to find unclaimed money, you need to contact the individual government agency that you believe owes you money.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, more than $2 billion in unclaimed refunds are awaiting about 1.7 million people who failed to file a 2001 income tax return. However, in order to collect the money, a return must be filed with an IRS office no later than April 15, 2005. The IRS estimates that about half of those who could claim refunds would receive more than $484. Some individuals may have had taxes withheld from their wages, but had too little income to require filing a tax return. Others may not have had any tax withheld, but would be eligible for the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit.
In cases where a return was not filed, the law provides most taxpayers with a three-year window of opportunity for claiming a refund. If no return is filed to claim the refund within three years, the money becomes property of the U.S. Treasury. For 2001 returns, the window closes on April 15, 2005. The law requires that these returns be properly addressed, postmarked and mailed by that date. There is no penalty assessed by the IRS for filing a late return qualifying for a refund.
The IRS provides specific information on its Web site, www.irs.gov, on how to obtain a past refund. You can also call the agency's toll-free number, (800) 829-1040.
More than $9 billion worth of matured savings bonds have never been cashed. You can bring your uncashed savings bonds to your local bank, which will cash them in for you. If you think you have lost a savings bond and have record of the serial numbers, the Bureau of Public Debt, www.publicdebt.treas.gov, can look up their status. Also, bonds that are lost, stolen, mutilated or destroyed can be replaced free of charge as long as the bureau can establish that the bonds have not been cashed.
A Hidden Pension
If you participated in a pension plan of a company that went out of business or closed its plan and subsequently forgot about your investment, your money is likely under the watchful care of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a U.S. government agency that protects the retirement incomes of about 44 million American workers in about 32,500 private defined benefit pension plans. PBGC is currently holding unclaimed money for approximately 22,000 people, with the average amount being $3,774. Similar to the Bureau of Public Debt, the PBGC offers a pension search directory on its Web site, www.pbgc.gov, which enables you to determine if you are owed your retirement income.
Keeping Track of Your Assets in the Future:
The best way to ensure your assets do not go unclaimed is to do the following:
Keep accurate and current records of bank accounts, insurance policies, stock certificates, utility and rent deposits, and safe deposit box locations.
Keep accounts active through customer-initiated contact with the holders of your property through activity on your account (not merely the accrual of interest).
Notify a family member or trusted adviser of the location of your records.
Notify all institutions every time you move.
Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital Management (arielmutualfunds.com) in Chicago, is "Good Morning America's" personal finance expert. Ariel associates Matthew Yale and Aimee Daley contributed to this report.