Imagine that your reclusive old uncle living in California turns out to be a brilliant treasure hunter. In fact, he has millions of dollars in rare diamonds and jewelry stashed away in his safe deposit box. When he dies, the bank has no contact information for next of kin, so it passes the unclaimed riches along to the state, where they sit waiting for a rightful heir to claim them. The only thing standing between you and a one-way ticket to rich-ville is a phone call. What are you waiting for?
While it's unlikely that any of your distant relatives are secret billionaires, the truth is that $58 billion of unclaimed cash and property are out there waiting for their rightful owners. Most of it — around $42 billion — is held by individual states, but other unclaimed funds sit in pensions, insurance policies, class-action legal settlements and even forgotten U.S. savings bonds [source: Hicken]. In most cases, not only the account owners, but also their rightful heirs can claim the marooned money. So we ask again, what are you waiting for?
We've assembled a list of the top 10 sources for digging up unclaimed money. Let the treasure hunt begin!
The bulk of unclaimed money is held by individual states. Under state laws, cash and property held by banks, insurance companies and other businesses for more than five years without any activity is considered "unclaimed" and must be turned over to the state treasury [source: PA Treasury]. Examples of unclaimed property held by states include:
- bank account balances and safe deposit box contents
- uncashed checks and wages from former employers
- unclaimed life insurance benefits
- items left in police departments as stolen property
- utility deposits
Each state holds hundreds of millions to even billions of dollars in unclaimed cash and property. The fastest way to search all of the state coffers at once is to use MissingMoney.com. This searchable database is backed by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) in cooperation with all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The NAUPA operates its own site, unclaimed.org, which also has links to individual state treasury databases.
If you moved in the past year, you probably sent an e-mail to friends and family with your new mailing address. Did you also remember to write a letter to the IRS (technically, it's called Form 8822)? If not, there's a chance that the IRS tried to mail you a tax refund check, but it came back as undeliverable. That's assuming your tax return had your old address.
Back in 2011, the IRS was sitting on more than $150 million in tax refunds for nearly 100,000 people whose addresses were undeliverable. The average check was $1,547 [source: IRS]. If you think that the IRS owes you a refund, visit the aptly named Where's My Refund? Web site. To search the database, you'll need your Social Security number and the exact amount of the refund. If you would rather talk to a person, call the IRS refund hotline at 800-829-1040.
The IRS also may owe you money if you held a job in the past few years, but made too little money to have to file a tax return. For tax year 2013, the minimum income requirement was $10,000 for a single filer and $20,000 for married filing jointly. Even if you made less than that, though, your employer probably withheld taxes from each paycheck. To get this money, you must file an income tax return within three years of the return due date [source: IRS].
The U.S. Treasury
Buying a U.S. savings bond was considered a patriotic act during World War II and has always been a solid, if conservative, investment idea. Savings bonds and other securities are sold by the U.S. Treasury to pay off the nation's debts. Treasury bonds pay relatively low interest rates and take up to 30 years to mature, but they are considered one of the safest investments around — unless you never cash them in.
The U.S. Treasury maintains a searchable database called Treasury Hunt (even bureaucrats have a sense of humor) that can help you identify lost or mature savings bonds. All you have to do is plug in your Social Security number or the number associated with the bond. Keep in mind that the online service only works for Series E bonds issued 1974 or later and Series EE bonds issued 1980 or later.
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC)
Before 401(k) plans, there were pensions, mythical creatures that repaid decades of employee loyalty with a guaranteed salary for life. For today's workers, pensions are about as common as caviar vending machines in the break room. But if you or a loved one were lucky enough to put money away in a pension, make sure you claim it!
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) is a federal government agency that holds on to unclaimed pension funds from public and private companies. You can search the database by employee name, company name or the state where you worked. Even if you didn't work for the company for a long time, you may be entitled to claim some of the money that was stashed away for your retirement. Family members and other beneficiaries can also claim pensions, though it's usually less than the full amount [source: PBGC].
National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits
Changing jobs is chaotic enough, but even worse when you throw 401(k) account management into the mix. The good news is that the IRS allows you to roll over an old 401(k) retirement account into a new 401(k) tax-free. The bad news is that human beings are lazy and forgetful. If you think you may have left money in an old 401(k) account, there's an easy way to find out.
The National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits is a searchable online database of unclaimed 401(k) funds and other inactive retirement accounts. The list is maintained by PenChecks, the largest processor of retirement benefit distributions in America. Other processors and organizations add their unclaimed names to the database, too. Enter your Social Security number and see if there's a forgotten retirement nest egg waiting for you.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)
Before the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in 1933, bank accounts were anything but secure. In the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of U.S. banks went belly up and took people's life savings with them [source: FDIC]. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the FDIC to provide much-needed stability to a financial system mired deeply in the Great Depression.
The agency insures all deposits in FDIC-insured banks up to $250,000 per account. If a bank fails — or is closed by government regulators — the FDIC is responsible for distributing all remaining funds and settling all insured accounts. It's possible that you or a close relative had money in a failed bank and never received your check from the FDIC.
Plug your name into the FDIC database and see what comes up. You should be aware, though, that as of this writing (2014) the FDIC is only processing payments for institutions that failed between 1989 and 1993, the era of the savings and loan crisis, or undelivered or uncashed dividend checks [source: FDIC].
The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA)
Credit unions can do everything a bank can do. They offer checking and savings accounts, ATM cards, and even loans — often at better interest rates than conventional banks. The main difference is that credit unions are not-for-profit institutions owned by their account holders, aka "members." Usually to qualify for membership, you need to live in the same geographic area as the other members, work for the same company, attend the same college, or share other community bonds.
Just like banks, however, credit unions can fail. And when credit unions go bust, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) comes to the rescue. Much like the FDIC, the NCUA insures credit union deposits up to $250,000. If the NCUA can't turn around a credit union's finances, it liquidates the credit union and returns all assets to the members.
If an account refund check comes back as undeliverable, though, the clock starts ticking. The NCUA only guarantees full payment of undeliverable accounts up to 18 months after liquidation [source: NCUA]. If you wait too long to claim unreturned funds, you could lose them for good. The NCUA doesn't have a searchable database, but you can look up your name on this updated list.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
Investing is inherently risky business. There are unforeseen market forces to contend with and shifting government regulations to consider. And then there are the crooks. The mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to protect investors from fraudsters, pyramid schemers, and other white-collar criminals that try to rig the system. When the SEC takes down a bad egg like Bernie Madoff, it assigns a "trustee" to distribute the felon's ill-gotten assets to the clients he robbed.
The SEC maintains a long list of bad banks and crooked brokers who have been shut down in recent years. If you were the victim of fraud in one of these cases, contact the trustee assigned to the case. Another place to look is the Securities Class Action Clearinghouse, an updated database of private class-action suits filed by investors. If you qualify as a member of the "class," you could share in the compensation.
Life Insurance Companies
The sole purpose of life insurance is to provide money to the relatives of the deceased to cover things like funeral expenses and provide a modest income to replace the deceased's lost wages or salary. But many people die without keeping good records of their life insurance policies. In those cases, relatives don't claim the insurance benefits because they have no idea that that a policy even exists. Insurance companies are supposed to do their best to notify next of kin, but hundreds of millions of dollars still go unclaimed each year [source: Sullivan].
If an insurance company stops receiving premium payments on a life insurance policy, it has to transfer the unclaimed funds to the state treasury after two to seven years of inactivity, depending on individual state law. In the meantime, the total value of the benefits is reduced as the life insurance siphons off funds to cover missing premium payments [source: Sullivan]. It's in the beneficiaries' best interest to claim those policies as soon as possible, or else the funds could be reduced to zero.
There are no free online databases for searching private insurers for inactive accounts. You could contact your state insurance department and see what help they can offer, or you can pay $75 for a policy locator service operated by the Medical Information Bureau (MIB). MIB advertises a success rate of 30 percent in identifying applications for life insurance, which may or may not lead to existing policies [source: MIB].
Money is the real international language (love can get lost in translation). If you or a loved one has opened a bank account in another country, or bought insurance policies or securities abroad, there's a chance that your money is collecting dust in some unclaimed foreign account.
There is no single international database for unclaimed money, but many individual countries have searchable Web sites to locate forgotten loot. Here is a sampling from English-speaking countries:
If you think there is a lot of money waiting in an unclaimed foreign account, it may be worthwhile to hire a private investigator or "tracer" who specializes in recovering funds from foreign banks. Be wary, however, of locator companies that contact you claiming to have found lost money and asking for a percentage cut of the cash [source: Sullivan]. Read over all contracts carefully, or even better, have your lawyer do it.
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Author's Note: 10 Sources of Unclaimed Money
Thank goodness for my wife. If left to my own devices, my finances would be in shambles. The woman hates being the family budget master (mistress? goddess?), but she knows better than to trust our family's financial recording keeping to the guy who can't remember the name of our bank. My dad occupied this role for an embarrassingly long time, well into my early professional career. He was the one who would remind me to roll over a 401(k) when I left a job, and convince me to sign up for automatic transfers from my checking account into a savings account. Now my wife is the unfortunate soul who has to nag me to document my business expenses and dig crumpled receipts out of my pockets. When each month draws to a close and I see her hunched over our overspent budget — shoulders tensed in deep frustration — I do my best to show my undying appreciation and affection for her difficult task. Tender caresses are usually useless, but brownies are surprisingly effective.
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). "History of the FDIC." (March 6, 2014) http://www.fdic.gov/about/history/
- Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). "Unclaimed Funds." (March 6, 2014) http://www2.fdic.gov/funds/index.asp
- Hicken, Melanie. "$58 billion unclaimed: Is some of it yours?" CNN Money. Jan. 27, 2013. (March 6, 2014) http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/24/pf/unclaimed-money/
- IRS. "Does the IRS Have Money Waiting For You?" Aug. 3, 2011. (March 6, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/uac/Does-the-IRS-Have-Money-Waiting-For-You%3F
- IRS. "IRS Seeks to Return $153 Million in Undelivered Checks to Taxpayers." Nov. 30, 2011 (March 6, 2014) http://www.irs.gov/uac/IRS-Seeks-to-Return-$153-Million-in-Undelivered-Checks-to-Taxpayers%3B-Recommends-e-file,-Direct-Deposit-to-Avoid-Future-Delivery-Problems
- MIB. "Policy Locator Service." (March 6, 2014) http://www.mib.com/lost_life_insurance.html
- National Credit Union Administration (NCUA). "Unclaimed Deposits" (March 6, 2014) http://www.ncua.gov/Resources/AM/Pages/UnclaimedDeposits.aspx
- PA Treasury. "Unclaimed Money." (March 6, 2014) http://www.patreasury.gov/unclaimedProperty.html
- Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. "Find an Unclaimed Pension." (March 6, 2014) http://search.pbgc.gov/mp/
- Sullivan, Paul. "For a Fee, Seeking Owners of Unclaimed Money." The New York Times. June 21, 2013. (March 6, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/22/your-money/seeking-owners-of-unclaimed-money-for-a-fee.html
- Sullivan, Paul. "Tracking Down and Collecting Unclaimed Life Insurance." The New York Times. Feb. 25, 2011. (March 6, 2014) http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/26/your-money/life-and-disability-insurance/26wealth.html?pagewanted=all