How to Find Unclaimed Property
Unclaimed property represents a way for a state government
to increase its revenue. They just take the money from your forgotten
or ignored accounts. Every state has a department that handles
this. Uncashed checks, forgotten bank accounts and other "abandoned"
monies go there. Many check, accounts, and other items of value
that are not claimed within a certain time frame are turned over
to the government, which is then is supposed to make an attempt
to find the rightful owner (or their heirs) and return the property.
Not surprisingly governments don't try very hard to find the
owners. Often there is an address right there on the account
or check that is turned over and yet the rightful owner is not
notified. At one point, according to an article I read years
ago, Oklahoma's unclaimed property program, which had been around
for more than 30 years, had collected more than $140 million
in unclaimed property, yet paid out only $45 million to the rightful
owners, leaving around $95 million (plus interest) for the state
to spend as it wished. Yes, they get to spend the excess money
when the owners are not located. There are stipulations about
when they can do this, but even if the money is just "borrowed"
it need never be truly paid back if the rightful owner never
You may be wondering what this has to do with you. There are
two reasons you need to know this, which are covered below.
Many states hire extra auditors to check the records of banks
and other companies for supposedly "abandoned" accounts.
Depending on the type of bank account or insurance policy and
the laws of the particular state, just leaving your money inactive
for a couple years can be enough for it to be legally designated
as abandoned, at which point it is "escheated" (the
technical term) to the state. Some departments are paying independent
auditors a percentage of the money they can identify for collection,
in order to bring in more of it. It's a new revenue source in
times of declining tax collections.
Of course they're supposed to make an attempt to return the
money or valuables to the owners, so what do they do in that
regard? Maybe publish a notice in a newspaper. Most also now
have a list of assets and names of owners on a website somewhere.
I once found an insurance refund of almost a thousand dollars
that was rightfully owned by a family member but had escheated
to the state because she forgot about it. But she only recovered
the money because I happened to see her name on an online list.
She was unaware that the state had such a department or list.
How hard would it have been for the state to find her? In
fact, she was still living in the same city as when she had opened
the old account, and a quick internet search would have yielded
a phone number (there were only two people in the state with
her name). They never called her, of course, and it seems that
most states do nothing more than post on a website the name on
the account that was turned over, along with where it came from
and (sometimes) the amount of money. Since most state laws allow
them to spend or at least "use" the money that is not
claimed, can we expect much more?
You might think this whole topic is irrelevant to you, unless
you ask about the definition of unclaimed property. Maybe you
have a bank account that you haven't accessed in a long time?
It could be escheated to the state soon. Maybe there was a refund
due on your mortgage insurance after you paid off the loan off
early, and you never knew about it. Mortgage insurers tend not
to tell you, and eventually that too goes to the state coffers.
Then there are inactive stock accounts, utility company refunds
and returned dividend checks. These can all escheat to the state
after some time has passed. Some states will even take the contents
of safe deposit boxes if you haven't accessed them in a few years.
State statutes define long periods of inactivity as a "presumption
For quite a while I had an old savings account at a credit
union in another state. It hadn't been active for at least three
years, but I left a hundred dollars in it so I can keep the great
credit card that this credit union offers to savings account
holders. This was probably considered "abandonment"
(three-to-five years is a common rule), and it did trigger a
$50 inactivity fee. I called the credit union and got that refunded,
but I should probably send a dollar deposit once in a while,
which gets us to the "why you need this information"
and "what you need to do" parts of this article.
What You Need to Do
There are different rules in each state, but following the
guidelines here should keep the state governments from taking
- For accounts with online access, login at least once a year,
and possibly transfer a little money from one account to another
to keep them "active."
- Make a deposit or withdrawal (any amount) at least once
per year in bank accounts.
- Make a visit to you safe deposit boxes at least once every
- Be sure every account holder gets your new address when
- Deposit or cash checks soon after you get them.
- List all of your various accounts, including banks, credit
unions, insurance policies, utility deposits, brokerage accounts,
retirement accounts, and positive credit balances of any sort.
Tell someone you trust where the list is (or give them a copy).
That way if you die, those you love (and not the state) will
be able to get at your money and valuables.
It's difficult to say how much is being held by states, but
an article from ING Bank noted that back in 2008 the fifty states
in the United States were holding more than $32 billion worth
of unclaimed property, and they are always working to collect
more. They are paying as much as a 15% reward to auditors who
find "abandoned" money. Considering the minimal effort
to locate rightful owners, it seems that a law intended to protect
consumers is being used by governments to take advantage of them.
Locating Your Unclaimed Property
It is easier than you might think to forget about an account
or to never know that you had a refund coming for a policy of
some sort. For example, some people simply forget the $100 deposit
they put up to have the electricity turned on, and then they
move. The electric company will likely send one letter to your
old address, and if you don't get it, they sit on the money until
the state takes it.
Also your uncle or parent may have died without ever mentioning
an account to anyone. To search for lost money in your own name
and that of your relatives, go to this site:
Follow the links to your state website. It can be fun to find
the name of a friend there too, and let him know he has some
money coming. The states each have their own procedures for making
a claim for unclaimed property of your own or that of a relation
who has died. You can also help people find their money, which
brings us to the next part of this article...
Make Money Helping People Find Their Money
Year ago, before everything was on the internet, some private
investigators used to routinely go through the records that the
state kept on abandoned accounts. If they found a few with large
amounts of money, they then tracked down the rightful owners
and told them they had located some money that was theirs, and
would help them get it for a 30% commission. If it was a $60,000
account of a dead relative, for example, the private investigator
would be paid $18,000 after helping the person fill out the forms
and get their money.
Since most people at that time had never heard the term "escheat"
nor knew anything about these state departments, they never would
have found the money without this help. At some point an entrepreneur
even created a course on how to help people in this way for a
fee, and he sold it for hundreds of dollars on late night television.
He failed to mention that some states required a person to have
a private investigators license to do this legally.
I don't know if people are still helping others in this way
to make money. With unclaimed property lists online now for every
state, it is easy enough for anyone to do the research themselves
once they hear about it. On the other hand, consider what happened
as I was reworking this article (I first wrote it years ago).
I just found three items that rightfully belong to another family
member on the State of Michigan Department of Revenue site. If
the accounts or check amount to anything I'll bet I can talk
him into buying me dinner at least.
I don't want to encourage illegal actions, but perhaps your
state does not require a license of any sort to help people for
a fee. If nothing else, you can check out the names of all the
people you know and notify any whose names you find on a state
list of abandoned property. They might choose to reward you.