I used to think the whole idea of unclaimed money was a scam, or just silly. Who doesn't claim money? I want every penny I'm entitled to, thank you very much.
But a fellow at work did a search the other day and found out he had $90 of unclaimed money waiting for him, from a county court halfway across the country, in a state he'd never been to.
That made me want to find out more. It turns out that I don't have any unclaimed money waiting for me, but you might, and it's easy to check for free.
All the states in the U.S. really do have laws that require companies to keep records of abandoned or unclaimed money, in case the rightful owner shows up years later. The money comes from things like dormant bank accounts or refund checks that get returned to sender.
If it's property instead of money, like the contents of a safe deposit box, the company can sell it after a while, but they still have to record the money they get from the sale. All the abandoned money is reported to the state where the owner last lived, but you don't have to be the actual owner. In my friend's case, the money was his late father's and he was the heir.
Go to www.missingmoney.com, put in your name and state, and search for free. You have to choose a state on the first page, but once you get the results, you can search all states at once if you want.You can recognize pretty quick if the address or the company that has the money looks familiar and figure out whether it's really you or not. Some guy with my name in Louisiana really needs to claim his dividends. Too bad I never lived in Louisiana and never owned a mutual fund.
Don't quit after searching your own name, though. My friend's father died a few years ago, and since my friend was an only child, he was the sole heir. He searched his father's name and found out his father never picked up a bond that he was due back from a county court. So look for anyone who named you in their will, and might as well check out some friends and other family members too, just to be nice.
By law, the money is held by the state where the property owner's last known address was, so you should only have abandoned money in a state where you had a mailing address, regardless of where the company is that's holding the money.
But don't count on every state being up-to-date with its listings on the missingmoney.com site. My friend had to click over to the New Mexico state website and search directly, and his father's name was spelled with a couple letters wrong, too, so try a name with a few common misspellings, and don't forget maiden names and stuff. To get to a state's own site, click on "Can't find it?" in the little gray box on the search results, then use the map.
Claiming the Money
Claiming unclaimed money is a little trickier. If it's a large amount and it's going to be difficult to prove your connection, here's where you might want to hire somebody who knows more about it. But you can do it yourself. Click over to the website of the state where the money's located and look for directions on how to file a claim. There will be a form to fill out, and you'll need to provide whatever documentation they ask for, to show that you're legally entitled to the money--identification, a will if you're an heir, something to connect you to the address if you've moved, etc. Apparently it takes a while--my friend just sent it in and they said it might be weeks. But companies really do have to return this money to whoever deserves it, and you'll have the state behind you enforcing it, if you have the paperwork to show it's yours.
If you have a complicated claim and want help with the paperwork, look for a legitimate company or lawyer to help. Be careful of scammers who contact you and say you have unclaimed funds, then get you to send them your personal information so they can use it for identity theft, and they don't even care if you have abandoned property. You can avoid that kind of scam by checking out anybody before you do business with them, searching online for consumer complaints or checking them out with the Better Business Bureau or their state's attorney general.
Other Unclaimed Money
The IRS isn't so nice about all this. I don't think there's any list of people with unclaimed IRS refunds online. If you didn't file a tax return a couple years ago but were due a refund, there's no penalty for filing late now, but you only have three years to do it or they keep your money. Go to the IRS website, look up the 1040 form for the year you need, fill it out and send it in. If you filed a tax return but your refund never showed up, go here and fill out the form to report a missing refund.
To look for unclaimed pension funds, search here.
To look for unclaimed FDIC insurance funds after a bank failed, search here.
There are other places holding unclaimed funds, too: The Veterans Administration, the U.S. Treasury for savings bonds, HUD for mortgage insurance... If you suspect you may have unclaimed money from another source, search for the branch of the government that would administer it and the word "unclaimed" or something similar.
I'm starting to see that all this unclaimed money isn't as silly as I thought. Besides people dying or going to a nursing home and not receiving money, there are checks that get lost in the mail, post office forwarding that gets messed up, refunds you might not even know you had coming, like utility co-ops that refund money when you move out of their area, or income you're not aware of, like royalties from some old project that trickle in once a year and you forgot about when you moved. It's worth searching the databases, even if you're anal about keeping track of your own money, because forgetful Aunt So-and-So might just be so grateful you found some of her money, that she'll share it with you.
8:33 p.m. March 15
Whats the statute of limitations?
9:46 p.m. March 15
For the state unclaimed property bureaus, I don't think there is any. I looked up the home pages of a couple states, and they said there was none, but you know how it is... Fifty states, fifty different laws. So there might be statutes of limitations in some states on some things. The IRS website seems to say you only have three years to get a tax refund, which seems awfully short, but that's all I can find.
10:55 p.m. March 15
Here's the HUD search: http://www.hud.gov/offices/hsg/comp/refunds/
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