While the possibility always exists of finding some extra change under the cushions or a forgotten bill in the pocket of a pair of pants or a jacket, significant money may be out there for your taking -- you just need to find it.
According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, state governments have about $22.8 billion in unclaimed assets. In 2003, the last year NAUPA tracked unclaimed assets, 953,000 successful claims were made, resulting in $876 million in property being returned to its rightful owners.
What constitutes unclaimed property?
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 (you!) recovers them or until the property is sold at auction.
What is the average amount people can expect is out there in their name?
It's been reported that one out of eight persons in the United States has unclaimed property. The average claim amounts to roughly $920.
How can you find out if you have unclaimed property?
When it comes to hunting for your own potentially hidden treasures, many states have made finding and recovering unclaimed property pretty simple. Most states publish (twice a year) all unclaimed property in the newspaper. Also, many states offer free, online access to property databases and even online claim forms.
NAUPA (unclaimed.org), a nonprofit organization affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers, is an excellent source for information on unclaimed property. NAUPA's site links to individual state Web sites that allow you to search for your property.
What if your state does not offer an online search engine? If your state does not allow you 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. They may ask you to write a formal letter requesting information about any unfound 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 acts as a custodian until the rightful owner or his or her heir makes a claim to the assets, so the state is merely a holding place for your unclaimed property and not the owner.
What about the fee-based services that claim they can find unclaimed property for you -- should you enlist their services?
According to the Illinois State Treasurer's Office, its Web site, and those of most states, is identical to any fee-based search company, so it is not necessary to use fee-based services.
Outside of contacting your state treasurer, where else might you discover unfound money? Remember those savings bonds that grandma and grandpa gave you for your birthdays and graduations? More than $13 billion worth of matured savings bonds have never been cashed. Additionally, more than 15,000 savings bonds and 25,000 payments are returned to the Department of the Treasury as undeliverable each year.
If you have matured and uncashed savings bonds, bring them to your local bank where they will cash them in for you. If you think you have lost a savings bond and have a record of the serial numbers, the Bureau of Public Debt (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 of the Public Debt can establish that the bonds have not been cashed.
A few tips on how to keep your assets from going unclaimed:
- 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 in Chicago, is "Good Morning America's" personal finance expert.