June 15, 2011 -- Billions of dollars. That's the amount of unclaimed money in the United States waiting to be given back to the rightful owners.
"Good Morning America" has helped dozens of people find money held for them by the states.
Now we've brought in an expert, Mary Pitman, known as the "Unclaimed Money Fairy," to help you find your unclaimed money too, from a lost 401(k) plan to uncashed savings bonds to that tax refund you never received.
Pitman, a nurse by profession, became passionately interested in helping people find unclaimed money after she did it for a friend and discovered she had a knack for it. Her book, "The Little Book of Missing Money," is full of tricks, tips and direct links to the more unusual places you can search for unclaimed money.
Only on "GMA," Pitman shares her top tips, and answers your questions about how to search for unclaimed money and assure you get any money coming to you.
1. Make a List of Your Accounts
We should all take the time to make a list of all our accounts, so that our heirs will know where to look when we die. Keep that list with your will and estate paperwork, perhaps in a safe deposit box. Tell somebody trusted how to access it. Here's your motivator: If your family doesn't know about an asset, the state gets to keep it indefinitely and use any interest it earns to finance the government.
2. Search for Unclaimed Money in Deceased Relatives' Names
You can do an almost-nationwide search at the free website www.missingmoney.com. You can choose to search a single state or all states that participate. Be sure to check the map of the United States to see states included. If your loved one lived or worked in a state that does not participate with MissingMoney.com, then you can search that state's unclaimed property database directly by going to www.unclaimed.org.
3. Searching for Life Insurance Policies
There is no quick or easy way to find out if your loved one had a life insurance policy unless you live in Ohio or Louisiana. Ohio has a service for Ohio residents of families of deceased Ohio residents. They will send a query out to their licensed insurance agents within the state about whether or not they ever issued a policy on your loved one. Click HERE for details.
The Louisiana Department of Insurance website has useful tips for determining if someone had a life insurance policy and the company that issued it. Click here to search.
You can search for policies that were issued in Louisiana and then contact the insurance company for further instructions. The site cannot be used to search for policies that were not purchased in Louisiana. You will need the deceased's social security number and date of death when you call.
There is no national databank that you can search as each state regulates the insurance companies that operate within it. If you want to put time and effort in you can contact the state insurance office where your loved one lived and go state by state.
If the insurance company the policy was issued under has changed names, Best's Insurance Reports contains information about mergers and name changes in the insurance industry. It is usually available in the reference section of most public libraries.
The VA holds returned life insurance payments--such as those for dividend checks, premium refunds or life insurance payouts -- indefinitely. Check the Veterans Affairs website. There are some companies that will search for you for a fee.
Medical Information Bureau will perform a search of the member insurance agencies for $75. The downside is if the insurance company is not a member (most big insurers are) then the policy will not show up.
Another fee-based service is The Lost Life Insurance Policy Expert. The fee is $98.50 and searches 460 agencies. The life insurance companies reply directly to you.
Note: Some questions have been slightly edited for clarity and to ensure anonymity for the submitter.
H.F. from New York asked:
My dad passed away approximately 11 years ago, and I'm not sure if he left any unclaimed funds. How do I go about finding any funds that may have been left and unclaimed? His widow is still alive so would I be entitled to these unclaimed funds?
Sorry, but his widow would be the next legal heir unless he named you specifically as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.
A.W. from Florida asked:
I contributed to an IRA back in 1977 and 1978. I divorced and moved out of state and lost track of my IRA. I've tried several attempts over the years to locate by SS number, state of Maryland unclaimed funds, etc. Is there any way to track the IRAs given I have no records of the contribution. My ex-husband kept all financial records at the time of the divorce.
Was this through an employer or an individual insurance agent? They should be able to provide some information. You can also check The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits.
P.O. from North Carolina asked:
My grandmother had two savings account for myself and my daughter. After she passed away, my brother was executor of her will and didn't close those particular accounts out. I had forgotten about them. I have tried to track them down but the bank has evidently been sold a number of times. I have made numerous calls to California, but have been unable to find any information about these accounts. Is there any central place I can go to see if they are still there, or if she had closed them out?
Try the state unclaimed property site where your accounts were. If the bank closed completely, you can check with the FDIC. You can search bank "genealogy" by going to the National Information Center, and clicking on the "Institution Search" tab. If there was only a modest amount and the bank charged fees, the fees may have eaten up the balance.
T.P. of Ohio asked:
Just yesterday I received a letter from "Revenue Recovery Services" based in Temecula, Calif. They said I have an amount of $2,850 due to me from when I lived and worked in Santa Barbara. I am now in Ohio and they did have my correct address from Santa Barbara. All I have to do is sign the letter and promise to pay them 10 percent of any monies I get as their fee and they will send me the official claim form with instructions. Is there a need to use such a company or is something I can research on my own? And, how do I make sure they would not try and charge me other fees if I did use them?
Check the California Unclaimed Property site yourself. If it's not there, call them and ask them to search too and also ask them about the finder. You can also check your county and state tax office to see if it is an overpayment. Those listings don't usually appear on the unclaimed property site. The other option is the clerk of the court if you had any legal claims.
V. D'A. of New York asked:
I am wondering how I can find out if my mother had life insurance with her company. She passed away in 1997, prior to that she told me she was getting life insurance through her job and I believe a pension plan as well. When she passed away I called her job and the company changed names several times and I never found anything out. I am her beneficiary on her house and I am in the process of selling it now and moving so I would love to find out.
For the pension, check the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. I would ask to speak to the benefits administrator at the company she worked for. If that person can't answer who was providing life insurance policies at the time your mom worked there, ask to speak to the next person up. The information has to be there somewhere, possibly on an old pay stub if they have a record of it.
P.B.J. of Michigan asked:
How do I research for annuities that my ex-husband had in my name? I found some lost money but the state said that his children would have to file. He has no children and I was taking care of him before he died, so I was still a part of his life.
If he named you as the beneficiary, no one else matters. Other than that, if he has no other blood relatives, then you may be eligible.
R.P. of Illinois asked:
My father bought U.S. savings bonds for my son from age 8 on. My father is now deceased, but is it possible for my now 50-year-old son to locate and collect on those bonds?
Go to the U.S. Treasury.
K.J. of Texas asked:
My mother died when I was 16-years-old, and I know she had CDs and several bank accounts. I am wondering how I can find out if the money was ever claimed. She was not married at the time and I think it may have gone to the state. I don't have her social security number or anything like that. She was living in Texas at the time.
Search the Texas unclaimed property site under her maiden name. If you need the Social Security number, you can go to the Social Security Death Index.
E.P. from Minnesota asked:
I saved money in a 401k 20 years ago and never rolled it over. Now the company that administers the funds has changed hands three times. None of the companies say they have the money, in fact they say they haven't heard of me. What can I do?
Check the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. If the plan was terminated, check the Department of Labor Employee Benefits Security Administration.
J.O.Y. of Illinois asked:
My mother bought some U.S. savings bonds for me many years ago. I cannot find the paperwork that shows these were purchased. What can I do to locate these bonds? Is there a central location where I can find the bonds? They may have been bought in a couple of states.
L.H. of Texas asked:
I have been married three times, so basically I need to search under four different names – is that correct? How do I begin my search? Also, why aren't other states as interested in getting people their money back as Virginia?
You can search under as many names as you want! States keep the interest that they earn on the unclaimed property money. Some borrow from it. Nevada recently borrowed $10 million to bring business to the state.
J.S. from Michigan asked:
I found my deceased step-father on the missing money site. I am unsure if I am actually entitled to claim it. He had no other children and my mother is also deceased. It asks for a copy of his death certificate and I am also unsure of how to obtain that.
If he has no other blood relatives, i.e. siblings or their children, then you may be eligible. I would call the state first and check your status. You can get a copy of the death certificate by going to the Department of Vital Statistics in the state in which he died. There will be a charge to get it.
P.B. of Illinois asked:
My aunt, who resided in another state, told me she had an insurance policy on which I was named the beneficiary. She said the policy was purchased through an association to which she belonged. After my aunt died, I asked a relative who was my aunt's caretaker about the policy, and was told there was no such policy. How can I go about trying to find out if there are funds from such a policy, or if the policy might have been redeemed fraudulently?
What interests did she have that she might have joined an association? Did you ever see magazines that might indicate an association publication? Perhaps through her church? Alumni group? See above for my extended answer about life insurance.
T.F. of Mississippi asked:
Could I have unclaimed Social Security checks held that were due and not claimed due to not knowing where to mail them to? How do I find out?
Check directly with the Social Security Administration.