Unclaimed assets on the rise—are you missing money?

Have you noticed annual lists of names published in the newspaper by your State's Secretary the Treasury? Every year, a staggering number of Americans lose or misplace money owed to them from a variety of sources. State offices dedicated to reuniting owners with their "missing" accounts sometimes list the names of account holders in the newspaper. (Illinois recently returned $220 million to state residents.)

Dormant Bank Accounts

One big source of "missing money" involves dormant bank accounts and safe deposit boxes. While most customers close bank accounts when they relocate or change banking institutions, in a small percentage of cases an owner forgets to formally complete this process. Some individuals leave hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars in unused accounts. Dormant safe deposit boxes often include valuable coins, jewels or other property items.

After an account remains dormant for a specified period of time, generally three to 7 years, by law the bank must turn over the money to banking authorities. The money eventually reaches a state office for unclaimed funds. Employees try to locate the owner or owners. In the past, unclaimed deposits sometimes remained in the possession of state governments indefinitely. Today, many states have imposed legal restrictions on the time frames allowed for reclaiming these "lost" funds. In some jurisdictions, unclaimed missing money reverts to the state after a specified period of time.

Other Sources of "Missing" Money

Other types of "missing" or unclaimed money exist in the United States also. Some of these potential sources of funding include:

• Utility bill refunds;
• Pay checks;
• Inheritances;
• Stock dividends;
• Tax refunds;
• Social security checks;
• Royalties from oil drilling leases;
• Book royalties;
• Contest winnings;
• Life insurance proceeds, and more!

By law, companies must turn over unclaimed funds after a specified period of years. If a firm cannot locate the owner, it will send the proceeds to the state office responsible for holding unclaimed accounts.

Large Funds

As society became highly mobile and households began relocating with greater frequency, the problem of tracing people entitled to receive money overwhelmed some state treasuries. Today, experts believe vast sums remain unclaimed across the United States. California holds over $9 billion in unclaimed property. New York maintains an estimated $14.5 billion in unclaimed property.

Although most claims don't involve large sums of money, exceptions do occur. For example, a man in South Carolina received welcome news earlier this year. The South Carolina Treasurer contacted him to let him know about money owed to his late father. The lucky South Carolina resident subsequently received some $763,000, one of the largest awards of unclaimed funds in the state's history.

Money Claiming Challenges

State treasury officials often take great pride in restoring unclaimed funds to the rightful owners. However, they do require proof of entitlement before they can return "lost" money. State treasuries strive to prevent fraud, so they cannot part with unclaimed funds without documentation. Additionally, some states possess little incentive to return "missing" money unless the owner can clearly establish proof of ownership: in some cases states obtain short term operating revenue from the cash provided by these large funds.

This situation imposes limitations on the ability of legitimate heirs to receive funds due them. As long periods of time pass and memories fade, it frequently becomes more difficult for the descendants of people entitled to claim missing money to prosecute their claims.

Take Action Promptly

If you believe a state government might owe you some "missing" money, it makes sense to file your claim promptly. Each state maintains a specific office to handle misplaced or dormant funds. Additionally, some jurisdictions place time restrictions upon the ability of owners to claim these monies.

To pursue your claim, you'll need to follow the directions provided by the state agency. Most lost property offices at a minimum require some form of identification and proof of ownership of the missing funds. If you base your claim upon an inheritance, you'll also need to supply documentation establishing your entitlement to inherit from the original owner.

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