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Finding Your Lost Money

By Jason Alderman

You may not know it, but millions of Americans are owed money from long-forgotten government payments, stock sales, bank accounts, and other lost accounts. When the entities holding these funds can’t find the rightful recipients, they turn over the money to individual states, which hold it in escrow until claimed.

According to the nonprofit National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), state treasuries and other government agencies are sitting on more than $33 billion in unclaimed assets. And that doesn’t include billions of dollars in unredeemed US savings and treasury bonds, unclaimed pensions, and income tax refunds returned to the IRS as undeliverable.

Here’s a guide to locating unclaimed assets that may belong to you:

Money winds up in government lost-and-found agencies for many reasons, including:

  • People move and don’t leave accurate forwarding addresses, or they forget to update companies where they do business, hold investments, or have earned retirement benefits.
  • Dying without a will leaves it up to the court to assign assets.
  • You could unknowingly be named as beneficiary of an insurance policy or other account.
  • Forgotten utility deposits, bank accounts, or product rebates.
  • Overpaid mortgage payments after a home sale.
  • Name changes after marriage or divorce.

State-held property. Start your search with NAUPA, which provides tips on finding your money, as well as links to unclaimed property programs maintained by each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and several Canadian provinces. Many individual state programs also participate in MissingMoney.com, a free, centralized database endorsed by NAUPA.

Companies are required to surrender balances from accounts that have been inactive for one year or longer to the state government of your last known address; also check with other states where you’ve lived or done business, just in case. To improve your chances, search using different variations of your name (such as first name and middle initial, first and middle initials, last name first, etc.), as well as common misspellings.

NAUPA also provides a handy round-up of links to Other Sources for Unclaimed Property, such as unclaimed veteran’s benefits, refunds from HUD/FHA-insured mortgages and unclaimed foreign bank accounts.

Unclaimed tax refunds. In 2011 the IRS attempted to return $153 million in unclaimed federal income tax refund checks, mostly those that had been sent to the wrong address. If you never received an expected refund or simply want to check the status of your current filing, go to the Where’s My Refund page for instructions. Two tips:

  • Verify that the IRS has your correct address whenever you file taxes.
  • Sign up for direct deposit of future refunds to prevent misdirected checks.

Unredeemed savings bonds. The Treasury Department’s Treasury Hunt site has a searchable database to help you find and redeem matured, uncashed Series E savings bonds issued since 1974. There are also forms you can submit to collect on other lost, stolen, or destroyed bonds (Form PDF 1048 E) and for bonds not received (Form PDF 3062-4). Note that you will need to provide information about dates of purchase, names on bonds, and other pertinent data.

Find old pensions. Although pension plans have become increasingly rare, if you’ve had a long employment history, worked for several employers or belonged to multiple unions, you may have accrued forgotten pension benefits. Even with pensions you’re aware of, you must update your address with old employers or they might have difficulty finding you at retirement. Plus, many companies have merged or gone out of business, so records may have been lost or misfiled.

To find previous employers or their successor companies, search records at a library, historical society or chamber of commerce in the community where they operated, or contact former coworkers or unions. Other helpful organizations include the Public Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which protects and guarantees most pension plans, including those that closed or went bankrupt (CLICK HERE for PBGC’s search engine), PensionHelp America, and the Department of Labor’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.

Forgotten 401(k)s. To find an unclaimed defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k), profit-sharing plan or Missing Participant IRA your former employer may have set up on your behalf, use the search engine at the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. This database also includes lost pensions.

A few cautions: Many legitimate companies use states’ freedom of information acts to obtain owner information for unclaimed accounts. They contact individuals and offer to help find lost property for a fee (often a percentage of the total). This is the same information you can find yourself, for free.

Also, beware of emails or letters purporting to be from the state treasurer asking you to supply personal information — either by mail or by logging into a link provided. This is how many cases of identity theft begin. If in doubt, contact your state treasurer or controller’s office to ensure the contact was legitimate.

And finally, do your heirs a favor by keeping a record of all insurance policies, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes and personal property and consider letting people know if they’re listed as a beneficiary.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It’s always a good idea to consult a legal, tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

Follow Jason Alderman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney

Jason Alderman is Senior Director, Global Financial Education, with Visa, Inc.

Views expressed are the personal views of the author and do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, its employees, its members, or its clients.

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