A primer on finding unclaimed property

Finding free money lying around with your name on it seems a little too good to be true, doesn’t it?

That’s what I thought when I learned about Missing Money, a website that offers to help you track down unclaimed property that may belong to you. Sometimes free money is for real, though. The site is legit and exactly what it claims: a tool for finding free money. Specifically, money that’s already yours that you may have forgotten about or lost track of.

What is Unclaimed Property?

Unclaimed property is any financial asset that has been abandoned for a period of time. That time might be as little as one year or as much as three, depending on the state you live in. If the financial institution or company holding your money loses contact with you and can’t locate you within a certain period of time, they have to turn your assets over to the state. According to Missing Money, some common types of unclaimed property include:

  • Bank accounts and safe deposit box contents
  • Stocks, mutual funds, bonds, and dividends
  • Uncashed checks and wages
  • Insurance policies, CD’s, trust funds
  • Utility deposits, escrow accounts

You can also discover more exotic things. One of my colleagues reported that he and his sister used an unclaimed property claim to recover royalties for natural gas rights on land they own together.

The notion of unclaimed property is seductive: The idea that somewhere out there, money or property that rightfully belongs to you is languishing, just waiting for you to lay claim to it. It’s the stuff of Dickens novels! In real life, it’s a little more prosaic. Your unclaimed property search isn’t likely to be a rags-to-riches story

You may well find some money you’d lost track of, though. State treasuries are holding at least 32 billion dollars in abandoned assets. Some of that might belong to you. According to my home state, Massachusetts, as many as one in ten people have unclaimed property that can be retrieved by claiming it from the state that is holding it.

Missing Money exists to help you find out if you’re one of those people. It’s a free search service that takes some basic information, like your name and what state you live in, and searches a database for records of unclaimed property that match your data. You can search for anyone’s name, not just your own. It’s fast, simple and appears to work. A quick search on my name and location turned up two instances of unclaimed property in my name.

The search doesn’t give you a lot of detail about the unclaimed property. In my case, it told me who it belonged to (Sierra Black), what town the owner lived in and whether the asset was worth more or less than $100. One of the items had a company name attached to it, the other did not.

To lay claim to the property, you need to file a claim with your state. If your state is one of the ones participating in the Missing Money database, you can fill out the forms directly through their site. If your state isn’t participating with Missing Money, or if you prefer to deal directly with your state government, Consumerist suggests a clever hack for finding the appropriate state agency: simply google the phrase “unclaimed property” along with the name of your state, and it should turn up your state’s website for dealing with these claims.

I did this for Massachusetts and it led me to the Abandoned Property Division, where I ran a search under my name and filled out a form very similar to the one on Missing Money. The two processes seem to be interchangeable. Either should work equally well for reuniting you with your long-lost assets, if you have any.

In addition to the basic forms, you may have to prove your right to the assets the state is holding. In the case of the natural gas royalties, my colleague needed a notarized letter verifying that he in fact owned the land in question.

Beware of Scams

Missing Money is a legit site, approved by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Its services are free to use. Making a claim directly through your state government is also free. It should not cost you anything to recovered your abandoned property.

That doesn’t mean people won’t try to sell it to you, though. There are a number of businesses that charge “finder’s fees” for finding unclaimed property. They’re just doing the same thing you can do for yourself. You might be contacted by a service alerting you to unclaimed property and offering to help you get it back, for a fee. Don’t bite. The fees are typically around 10 percent of the total funds recovered, but can range much higher.

There’s no need to pay a finder’s fee to get your money. You can just fill out the forms through Missing Money or your state’s website and retrieve it yourself.

In addition to shady businesses trying to make a buck off real unclaimed property, there are also outright scammers who will try to convince you there’s money waiting for you in order to get access to your personal information. Again, you shouldn’t need to deal with any third party to get your unclaimed property back. You absolutely should not have to pay a fee for it.

Put This on Your To-Do List

You don’t have to pay to get your free money, but you do still have to put some time and effort in. Is it worth it? You decide. The forms are relatively quick and simple to fill out, so for me it seems totally worth it. I expect to get between $100 and $200 back, and the whole search process took less than an hour. That’s a pretty good rate of return on my time. I’m adding a search for unclaimed property to my list of annual financial chores, along with pulling my credit reports and checking to see if the interest rate on my savings account is still competitive.

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