Billions of Dollars Go Unclaimed Every Year: Is Some of It Yours?

by Carrie Kirby on 2 June 2014 0 comments

A $500,000 sack of diamonds and 20 pounds of gold bars sit unclaimed in California. A New Orleans woman found out she had inherited $237,000 — 17 years after her benefactor died. The Internal Revenue Service is sitting on millions of dollars of undistributed tax refunds, and state unclaimed money programs are holding onto more than $40 billion.

You may have heard public service announcements about databases for unclaimed money — or ads for for-profit money-finding services — and wondered, how could anyone not know they have cash or property coming to them? (See also: Unclaimed Assets: Is the Government Holding Your Money?)

The fact is, there are numerous circumstances that could lead to you not realizing what you are owed. Let's look at the most common reasons you might be owed money, and how to find out.

Lost Inheritance

Executors are supposed to contact heirs to inform them of what they inherit. But if the executor failed to locate you, or a relative died intestate, your inheritance could be sitting unclaimed. Another way that this happens is if the executor overlooked an account held by the deceased and therefore failed to include it your inheritance. California lists estates as one of the most common forms of unclaimed property it holds.

How to Find the Money

If the death happened recently, your first step is to contact the executor or visit the probate court to view the will. If probate has closed or the death happened in the more distant past, try the unclaimed property database for the state where the deceased lived.

Search for your own name using the resources at MissingMoney.com and the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (don't confuse the organization's website, www.unclaimed.org, with www.unclaimed.com, which is a for-profit company.) If you suspect that a family member who died had property the executor did not know about, you can search their name in the same databases. Each state will have its own procedure for legitimate heirs to come forth and claim the property.

What to Watch Out For

For-profit heir hunters who can pressure heirs to sign away up to 50% of the inheritance as a fee.

Unclaimed Bank Balance

You forgot you had an account or safe deposit box and, after a period of inactivity, the bank sent it to the state unclaimed property authorities. Or, a credit union failed and liquidated its assets, and it was supposed to pay a share to each member, but failed to locate you.

How to Find the Money

Check the state missing property databases. In the case of a failed credit union, visit the National Credit Union Administration. For bank failures, check with the FDIC.

Unclaimed Insurance Policies

Your policy matured, but the company couldn't find you because you had moved, or you were the beneficiary of someone who died and the company failed to locate you. Consumer Reports estimates that there are $1 billion in unclaimed insurance policies out there!

How to Find the Money

In addition to searching the unclaimed property databases above, contact the insurer directly. If you're not sure how to find the insurer, contact your state insurance department. If you're not sure if the deceased had a life insurance policy, check with their former employer or union and watch their mail for policy statements. If all else fails, you can pay for a policy search report from MIB Group, an anti-fraud insurance membership corporation.

What to Watch Out For

There are companies who will offer to find your lost policies for a fee, and they might even have names that make them sound like insurance companies. If you get a solicitation that sounds like it came from an insurance company, don't call the number on the letter — look up the insurance company's number and contact them directly.

Surplus Funds From Auctioned Property

If you lost your home to foreclosure and it was auctioned to the highest bidder, the bank may be required to pay you the money it receives in excess of paying off your mortgage and any liens on the property, depending on where you live. In 2010, Cook County, Illinois, was sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars in unclaimed funds from these auctions. But unbelievably, not all mortgage holders are required to notify foreclosure victims if surplus funds exist.

If your property in a storage unit was auctioned off due to unpaid fees, you may be entitled to "excess proceeds," that is, the amount of money the auction raised after deducting the fees you owed.

How to Find the Money

First of all, if you have to move due to a foreclosure, update your address with the court and with the bank so they can reach you. You can learn about your state's foreclosure laws and possibly get help contacting the bank from the National Consumer Law Center. With storage units, start by contacting the facility directly. If it has been awhile, you guessed it: Search those unclaimed property databases.

What to Watch Out For

Like seemingly every situation, there is a scam artist that specializes in these cases, known as a "surplus funds scammer."

In one such scam, "the con artist offers to accept the property deed and, in exchange, pay the homeowner a minimal amount of money, typically no more than a few thousand dollars. By transferring the deed, the homeowner signs away ownership of his or her house and any equity that has built up." Another approach is, like with other forms of unclaimed property, to charge a fee to search for unclaimed mortgages, even though they are listed on freely searchable databases.

With storage auctions, make sure the storage unit owner legally had the right to sell your stuff. Check local laws about required notifications; there have been cases of storage owners who make themselves unavailable to receive payment because they'd rather auction off the goods.

Compensation From Companies That Wronged You

Your airline lost your bags or bumped you. Your credit card overcharged you. Or one of the many companies whose services you use every day wronged you in a small or large way.

How to Find the Money

This is a tough nut to crack on your own. But there is a whole industry of class-action attorneys out there fighting in court for consumer settlements. Watch your mail for notices of class action payoffs for which you may qualify; sometimes you are required to send in documentation in order to claim your share. Or check Consumer Action's class action database.

If you think you might qualify for a class-action suit related to stocks you have owned, check Stanford Law School's Securities Class Action Clearinghouse.

For airlines, there is a service called AirHelp that will actually search through your email to find past flights for which you deserve compensation, and help you file for it.

What to Watch Out For

Phishing emails that purport to notify you that you are part of a class action suit. Don't click the links; class action suits usually use the real mail, not email, to notify potential class members. If you think the email might be about a legitimate suit, check the databases above and then contact suit filers directly, not through an email link.

Lost Pensions

You probably know whether you're owed a pension from the company you retire from at the end of your career. But you may have forgotten about benefits owed you by earlier employers, and it may be hard to track down who is responsible if companies have changed hands over the years.

How to Find the Money

Search the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation by your name, employer, or by state. The PBGC, a government agency, provides a booklet that walks searchers through the process of digging deeper for old pensions.

What to Watch Out For

Beware of so-called advisers who offer to help you with your pension in any way. They may be scammers angling to get a hold of personal information for identity theft purposes, or they may be trying to sell you unneeded services. The PBGC booklet mentioned above lists reputable local pension counselors.

For more information on how to search, or for scenarios not covered by this post, check out the many resources at USA.gov's unclaimed money page.

Have you ever recovered lost or unclaimed funds? Tell us about it in comments!

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