How to Claim Your Piece of a $32 Billion Windfall
Life + Money

How to Claim Your Piece of a $32 Billion Windfall

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You may have more money than you think you do.

In these turbulent economic times, when millions of Americans don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from, there are forgotten billions just waiting to be claimed. More than $32 billion in unclaimed property for 117 million accounts is available to be returned to the rightful owners, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). That includes bank accounts, safe deposit box contents, un-cashed checks, utility deposits, stocks, mutual funds, and lost insurance payouts.

Typically, assets held in financial accounts that have had no activity or the owner hasn’t touched in over a year are considered abandoned property under laws that have been around since the 1940s and sit in state coffers waiting to be picked up. More than $1.7 billion was returned to rightful owners in 2006 (the most recent data available) from over 1.9 million accounts across the nation, the NAUPA said.

Now social media is proving to be a popular and effective outreach method. Wisconsin Treasurer Kurt Schuller used his personal Facebook page and Twitter account over the past three months to track down a woman who had close to $225,000 being held by the state. Since January 2009, Wisconsin has returned $93 million to more than 285,000 account holders. “This is money we need in our economy now,” Schuller said in a statement.

Massachusetts Treasurer Steven Grossman says his state is on track to break last year’s record of $62 million worth of property returned to its rightful owners. “It’s hard to assess the economic impact but obviously when you put $62 million dollars back in people’s hands, it’s $62 million used as disposable income and that’s good,” he says.

There is no limit on the time you have to file a claim. And while all the states and Washington, D.C. have free websites (updated annually) to search for abandoned property, there’s only one free site that serves as a national database: It’s updated weekly but only includes participating states and provinces.

Not every state website tells you exactly how much money is owed. When you search it’s important to check every state where you have lived. Potentially, you could have unclaimed property in every state in which you have resided. If the name listed is a deceased relative or friend, only the rightful heir can claim the item. If you are the heir, you are required to submit a handful of documents, which can include a death certificate, Social Security card, and will.

Besides social media, state treasurers and officials have developed a variety of ways to reach out to former and current residents. Some officials cross-check public data, stage thousands of awareness events at state fairs and even shopping malls. This year, the Oklahoma Treasury Department was successful in connecting fairgoers at the Tulsa State Fair with more than $135,000 in unclaimed property. 

Once property is claimed, it returned to you at no cost or for a nominal handling fee upon filing a claim form and verification of your identity. You don’t have to pay a tax on the actual bounty itself, but you are subject to varying state taxes on any accrued interest.

Since it is impossible to store and maintain all of the contents that are turned over from safe deposit boxes, most states hold periodic auctions and hold the funds obtained from the sale of the items for the owner. Some states also sell stocks and bonds and return the proceeds to the owner in the same manner.

On Wednesday, the Massachusetts Treasurer Grossman’s office announced it will hold its seventh Ebay auction from October 29 through November 3. The Bay State has $2 billion in unclaimed bounty – in tangible and intangible items including stocks and bonds.  The auction contents, appraised at $350,000, will feature about 1,000 items including: gold, silver, jewelry, collectible currency, and high-end wristwatches. The most expensive item for sale: a diamond pendant 18 carat gold necklace valued at $25,000. Last year's EBay auction raised nearly $480,000 for the Massachusetts General Fund through the sale of 2,418 separate bid lots, nearly three times the amount of money generated from past auctions.