You’ve probably seen the headlines about billions of dollars in lost money held by governments. They’re true, and some of the money might be yours.
You don’t have to pay someone to find the money and return it to you. It’s easy to locate most of the lost money and have it returned. But a few types of payments require a little more work. I learned a lot about this process over the last year or so when straightening out my Dad’s finances.
Money is most likely to have been lost when you moved. Often, a payment isn’t forwarded to you and is
returned to the payer. Other times, the postal service simply loses a payment, or an electronic deposit isn’t made because the account was closed or a number was entered incorrectly. The payer usually will make efforts to locate you, but not always. Either way, after a period of time most established firms
classify the money as unclaimed property and turn it over to the state of your last known address. The state will hold it as a guardian until you claim it.
Another common way money is lost, especially by seniors, is inertia and inactivity. Generally, if a firm holds assets for you and hasn’t heard from you or seen any activity in the account for a period of time, it will consider classifying the assets as unclaimed property.
Some states have rigorous rules. Florida, for example, requires that if a business hasn’t seen any activity or had contact with you for one to five years (depending on the type of property), the property is considered abandoned and has to be turned over to the state after efforts are made to reach you.
Most do that by sending a letter stating that if they don’t hear from you by a certain date, the property will be turned over to the state.
These processes are known as escheatment, and the property is an escheated asset. But the most common term used today is unclaimed property. It’s also called abandoned property. The state holds the unclaimed property until you file a claim and prove ownership. Then, it is returned to you. But you won’t receive any income earned by the property. The state uses the income.
The claiming process is fairly easy online. If you’re not comfortable with online searches, enlist the help of a relative or friend. It should take only an hour or so for most people and quite likely will take less time.
To claim property, you need a list of the states in which you’ve lived and, preferably, your addresses in each state. In the search box on your favorite search engine, enter the name of the state and “unclaimed assets.” For example: “Virginia unclaimed assets.” You can enter “escheat” instead of “unclaimed assets.” Florida chose the catchy website address “www.fltreasurehunt.org.”
One of the first listings should be a link to the unclaimed property office of the state treasurer or finance office. Click on that, and on the next page should be a link for claiming property. From here, the states vary a little. Generally, you enter your first and last names and sometimes all or part of your Social Security number. Then click “search.”
Some states have you click on addresses where you’ve lived before showing a list of assets they might be
holding for you. Others will show a list of names similar to yours with relevant addresses and have you click on yours.
Once any unclaimed assets of yours are identified, most states require you to file a paper application to claim them. The website will fill in most of the information. You print, sign and return it with proof of identity. Proof can include a photocopy of a driver’s license or passport. The tricky part is many states require some proof you lived at the old address, such as a utility bill or other document. If you don’t have such proof, an alternative process will take more time.
After you mail in the form and the proof, the state will process it and eventually send a check. Processing can take from 60 days to six months, depending on the state, the value of the assets and the proof you provide.
The process is different for employer retirement accounts, annuities and life insurance.
Retirement accounts are most likely to be unclaimed by someone who worked at a firm early in adulthood and forgot about earned retirement benefits or a 401(k) account left at the firm. The former employer also might have merged with other firms, disrupting its records. Another possibility is
the employer transferred the pension liability to an insurance company.
To locate a lost retirement account, you have to contact former employers. Have the details about when you worked at the employer, where you were located and what jobs you held. You might have to complete a form or enter information on the employer’s website. The employer should be able to search its records, determine if you have an unclaimed retirement benefit or account and also let you know if
an insurance company took over the retirement obligation.
For life insurance and annuities, you need to contact individual insurers with which you have or had a policy. You should have some paperwork from the insurer with basic information about the account.
The claiming process for any of these assets can be more difficult for your executor after you pass away. Do yourself and your loved ones a favor by doing a search now and claiming any property being held for you.