• U.S.

Your Lost Treasure

4 minute read
Daniel Kadlec

Where do you think the money winds up when a gift certificate goes unredeemed? You probably assume that it’s a windfall for the store that collected the cash and never had to deliver anything. But that’s not supposed to be the case. After a waiting period–usually three to five years–the retailer is supposed to give the unspent money to the state, which is supposed to find the owner and give back the cash.

Yeah. That’s gonna happen.

Surprisingly, though, at least sometimes it does happen. Even better, givebacks are becoming more common as states make it easier to search for unclaimed property–be it an overlooked utility deposit at your first apartment or stocks and bonds that Aunt Agnes neglected to declare in her will. Heirs in Florida discovered a forgotten cache of pre-breakup AT&T shares this year and collected $589,000.

O.K. You are not too likely to pass Go and collect $200,000. Most claims have to do with a final paycheck you never received, a lost dividend check, a forgotten surplus at your health club. The typical claim paid is less than $1,000. Still, 1 person in 10 owns assets he or she doesn’t know about, and if you have moved frequently, your odds are considerably better.

How much unclaimed property is out there? It’s a huge number. States currently hold about $16 billion. Estimates of federal holdings–lost IRS refunds, undeliverable Social Security checks–run as high as $25 billion. Corporations that fail to remit assets to the states may hold an additional $100 billion. Funds lying dormant in state, federal and private retirement accounts and in group-life-insurance policies could total a staggering $1 trillion. Chew on that if, in your personal spending, you think little expenses don’t add up.

Assets are lost either because you forget about them or because institutions that hold them can’t find you. Maybe you’ve moved. But how hard are they trying? Not nearly hard enough, if you ask me. After all, creditors don’t seem to have this tracking problem. You could join the witness-protection program and they’d find you. One reason corporations resist surrendering assets is that they feel as entitled as any entity, especially the states. Sure, the states make an effort to locate you by advertising and possibly setting up a booth at the state fair. But most forgotten assets remain forgotten. The state spends the loot and pledges to make good if the owner shows up.

That’s why there may be a painless payoff in doing a little investigating on your own. (Lawyers and other pros want up to 50% of what they recover.) First, check with states where you have lived or have relatives. A new website, www.missingmoney.com is building a national database of all lost assets held by states. In the meantime, it links to individual state websites. Also search www.nupd.com You can contact your state’s unclaimed-property division, often under the treasurer.

There is no clearinghouse at the federal level. HUD, the Social Security Administration and the IRS are the most likely places to find missing assets. You’ll have to write them with as much detail as possible on what may be missing. It’s also a good idea to check with former employers for any wages or benefits still due you. It may amount to peanuts or nothing at all. But, as the New York Lotto ad goes, Hey, you never know.

See time.com/personal for more on missing money. E-mail Dan at kadlec@time.com See him Tuesdays on CNNfn at 12:45 p.m. E.T.

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