Although money is always useful, it’s surprisingly easy for people to lose track of assets. A pile of lost riches waiting for you might sound too good to be true—and it is for most people—but there might be some money out there with your name on it.
Tens of billions of unclaimed property still exists and states pay out over $3 billion in claims to individuals and businesses every year.
The most important things to know are:
- The lost assets are easy to find, and it’s worth searching for your money.
- Everything you need is available for free, and it’s easy to search for assets that may belong to you.
Why Money Goes Missing
It’s your money: Businesses and other organizations that hold your assets need to follow strict laws. Most states require them to contact you regularly (providing quarterly statements, for example) and allow you to take assets when you want to. But that’s a challenge. For example, when somebody moves or dies, the first priority might not be to notify everybody of a new mailing address. After one or two moves, you might completely forget about a few accounts, and heirs may be completely unaware of assets.
Lost contact: When businesses lose contact with accountholders, they are required to turn any assets over to the state. In most states, two to three years of inactivity or returned mail will require that assets be handed over (or “escheated”). Similarly, outstanding checks written to you—that you never cashed or received—are still your property, and you’re allowed to claim those funds even if the checks go stale.
Why states take your assets: The theory is that states should safeguard assets because the state is more likely to return missing money to citizens. Presumably, states have the resources to manage unclaimed property and will still exist in perpetuity. A business, on the other hand, might not be around forever and might be tempted to use your money during hard times.
While most lost money belongs to individuals, businesses can also search for and claim assets that have gone missing.
How to Find and Claim Assets
Finding money is easy, and you can do it yourself. Start by searching for assets that have been turned over to any state that you ever lived in (assets are generally turned over to the state with your last known address). Several free services make searching easy, including:
- MissingMoney.com includes data from most U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and parts of Canada.
- Unclaimed.org links directly to unclaimed property divisions of any state (or you can just search for your state’s Unclaimed Property office).
- USA.gov helps you search for assets due from government agencies and foreign governments (including tax refunds).
File a claim: If you find assets in your name, the next step is to fill out a form or online request to make your claim. Claims must include proof of identity (driver’s license or passport information, for example), any former addresses you’ve used, and documentation showing your right to ownership of the assets. If the owner is deceased and you inherited the assets, additional documents are required.
Ask for help: If you can’t find assets that you’re (somewhat) aware of, contact your state and ask about other options for research. It’s possible that your funds are not showing in the online databases correctly.
Should You Pay a Finder?
Lists of unclaimed property are freely available, so somebody might contact you before you are aware of any missing money. In most cases, these are private businesses known as “finders” who hope to earn revenue by reuniting you with your assets. Most state governments do not contact you directly—they don’t have the resources to track you down and reach out.
If you want to pay a finder, you’re free to do so if you think they provided a valuable service. But there is absolutely no requirement that you pay a fee to reclaim assets from your state, and you can complete a search and submit claims yourself for free.
If somebody contacts you regarding missing money, do some research before handing over any payment or personal information. Some of these approaches are legitimate, but others are scams. They can end up being a waste of money or lead to identity theft. Again, contact your state’s Unclaimed Property office directly before moving forward with a finder.
What Do You Receive?
In most cases, you receive the value of your assets when they were turned over to the state—and nothing more. If the money was invested in instruments that gained market value after going missing, you might not benefit from those gains: States often sell assets and convert them to cash for easier management.
The same is true for collectibles and jewelry—that’s why it’s best to keep track of items with sentimental value (family heirlooms and unique items, for example). Safe-deposit box contents are sometimes kept, but many items are auctioned, and heirs just get the sales proceeds.
What about interest earned on that cash over all the years? Don’t be surprised if you don’t get any. If it’s any consolation, some states use interest earnings to subsidize assistance programs that benefit low-income residents.
What Types of Assets Get Lost?
You might be diligent about tracking everything, but a wide variety of assets can result in unclaimed property. Any financial account, as well as any payment you never received (or checks you received but never deposited), might still be out there. Examples include:
- Checking and savings accounts
- Brokerage and retirement accounts
- Insurance benefits (including cash values, death benefits, and annuity payments)
- Escrow accounts
- Employment earnings
- Pension payments
- Tax refunds
- Utility deposits
- Safe-deposit box contents
- Certificates of Deposit (CDs) that matured several years ago
- And more