July 21st was the fifteenth anniversary of my father’s death. He died of cancer at age 49, just ten days shy of his fiftieth birthday.

When Dad died, he left behind a meager estate. Aside from the custom box business (which, admittedly, was not “meager”), he managed to leave each family member with $5,000 in life insurance proceeds, and that’s about it. His personal finance skills had never been great, and that included estate planning.

More than ten years after his death, however, I was contacted by a company out of Florida. “We have your annuity,” they told me.

“What annuity?” I asked. And they explained that my father had opened an account for me in 1977, when I was just eight years old. He had made a single payment into the account, and then forgotten about it. For the past 30+ years, the account has simply been earning interest. The balance is now $438.79.

Now that I know about this account, I can cash it out by providing a copy of my father’s death certificate. But before the company tracked me down, this was a classic case of unclaimed money.

What is unclaimed money?

In most (all?) states, banks, utilities, insurance companies, and investment companies — along with many other businesses — are required to surrender inactive accounts to the state. These accounts are known as “lost”, “abandoned”, or “unclaimed” property. They contain unclaimed money.

Unclaimed property can include things like:

  • Forgotten savings accounts
  • Uncashed paychecks
  • Unclaimed security deposits
  • Unused gift certificates (not in all states, obviously)
  • The contents of a safe deposit box
  • Investments, including stocks and mutual funds

When this property has been legally “abandoned”, it’s turned over to the government, which acts as a custodian until the rightful owners steps forth to claim it. Until then, most states use the proceeds (and the interest earned on the unclaimed money) to help fund operations.

If you can prove that you’re the rightful owner of a particular abandoned asset, you can reclaim it. For free.

Important: You should almost never pay to regain your unclaimed money and property. Governments and other agencies provide this information for free, and only require that you provide documentation that the unclaimed money belongs to you. You don’t have to pay a fee. There are companies out there that try to act as an intermediary, but you do not have to use these. You can find unclaimed money yourself for free.

How to find unclaimed money

I’ve written before about using MissingMoney.com to find unclaimed property. The latest issue of Consumer Reports Money Adviser has a great article describing how to find forgotten assets. From the story:

It’s easier than ever to find forgotten property thanks to the increasing number of databases. In most cases, it makes sense to do the sleuthing yourself rather than pay a finder firm to do it for you. If you locate funds that are yours, the fiduciary that holds them will provide specific instructions on how to claim them. You’ll need proof of your identity. If the property belonged to a deceased relative or friend, you’ll also have to prove that you are the executor of the estate or the rightful heir.

Here are the methods Consumer Reports recommends for finding and reclaiming lost property (along with a few tools I found on my own):

The U.S. government also has an official government may owe you money page where you can check for unclaimed property, mortgage refunds, and more. Also, my buddy Jeff Rose recommends visiting GovBenefits.gov to see if you qualify for any government benefits. (DisasterAssistance.gov lets you see if you qualify for disaster-relief programs.)

The Money Adviser article provides more information about working with each of these sources. And, of course, the individual websites have detailed instructions for locating unclaimed money and other assets.

Search for unclaimed money by state

In addition to those national searches, each state has a department for unclaimed money and unclaimed property. I found a page that linked to all of these different resources, but the site was woefully out of date. So, I spent a warm Sunday afternoon in my non-air-conditioned office tracking down the current locations of each state’s unclaimed property office. (And I’ve included some info for Canadians, too.) Please let me know if you spot any errors or broken links!

I haven’t been able to find any other unclaimed money in my name other than the annuity my father opened when I was eight. That’s fine. After all, the odds are very slim that there’s anything out there that I’ve forgotten about. But it doesn’t hurt to take a few moments out of your day to see if there’s a savings account out there that your parents opened when you were a young squirt — one that’s been quietly earning interest in your name for thirty years!

Have you ever tracked down some forgotten assets? How did it work? Can you provide some tips based on your experience? Are there other tools and resources that should be added to this list?