Unclaimed Property is No Joke. How to Find the Right Help?

How to Find the Right Help?

What is Unclaimed Property?

So you get a call from someone who tells you there is a half-million dollars that belongs to you and is being held in a state trust. Next , they asks you to sign a contract to pay a small fee to receive assistance recovering the unclaimed property. Sound like a scam?

Recently, the Washington Post reported over $32 billion in unclaimed money in the United States. According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, every state including District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have unclaimed property. Programs usually administered by the state treasury to actively attempt to find rightful owners of assets that have been lost or simply forgotten. Unclaimed money can end up in a state trust simply by an individual moving, not having their mail forwarded, having a death in the family, assets not documented in a will, misplaced documents or a safe deposit box that may have belonged to an individual and other family members who were not aware of it. The unclaimed funds do not become property of the state and remain in trust until a rightful owner or a legal heir claims the money. It is estimated 1 in 10 people have unclaimed money held in state trusts.
Source: Washington Post, National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, Missouri State Treasurer

As one of the original consumer protection programs, unclaimed property laws have existed since the 1940s. State laws require financial institutions, insurance companies, public agencies and businesses to report and turn over assets that belong to a customer, client or employee. If there is documented proof that no transactions have occurred or there has been lack of contact with the owner for five or more years. The property typically consists of cash in bank accounts, securities, bonds, escrow accounts, contents of safe deposit boxes, pensions, uncollected insurance policies, government and state refunds, utility deposits and even wages from previous employment.
Source: National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, Missouri State Treasurer

Contents of safe deposit boxes are usually held for one to three years after an individual has stopped paying rent on the box. If the contents are not claimed, the state can auction the items within one to five years and proceeds from the sale are recorded in the name of the safe deposit holder. The proceeds are then held in trust until the owner or heir is located. Everything from currency, stamps, diamond rings, watches, sports cards and other collectibles such as, coins, medals, even letters signed by Presidents have been found upon opening unclaimed safe deposit boxes. A 2010 law passed in Missouri prohibits the sale of unclaimed military medals which are held until claimed by the rightful owner or heir.
Source: National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, Missouri State Treasurer

Most states maintain websites that contain names of individuals that have property listed within their state and there is no time limit for filing a claim. Attempts to locate rightful owners of unclaimed property by the state can include publishing names in state newspapers in hopes an individual will respond. States also use various websites, cross-referencing public data, public awareness programs and the use of a national database to help locate heirs.
Source: Missouri State Treasurer, Arizona Department of Revenue – Unclaimed Property Unit

Recently, the state of Missouri returned a record $6.1 million in Unclaimed Property to a woman in Kansas City. Though the name of the recipient has not been released by the state, it was confirmed that the unclaimed property was made up of one security. Apparently her ancestors invested in an obscure company and stock was lost over the generations while growing in worth.
Source: Missouri State Treasurer, Washington Post, Kansas City Star

Recommendations – Using a Licensed Private Investigator to Assist in Unclaimed Property Recovery

Many times businesses or holders of unclaimed funds will hire companies, commonly referred to as heir-finders to locate the rightful owner of unclaimed assets. Prior to turning the unclaimed property over to the state as required by law, Heir-finders may also contact consumers to notify the individual they may be the rightful owner or heir of unclaimed funds. For the protection of consumers most states require heir-finders to be licensed private investigators.
Source: Unclaimed Money Finder, Missing Money.com, azunclaimed.gov

These companies usually charge a percentage of the total amount recovered. Even Good Morning America has reunited forgotten funds with the owners and touts a whopping $418,598 in recoveries.
Source: Good Morning America, Yahoo News, Unclaimed Money Finder, AZ-UCP

Though there are many free websites available for trying to locate unclaimed property or funds, not all missing money or property has been listed in government or state databases due to various reasons. The most common reason is due to a specific time frame which has not expired so the unclaimed property is not turned over to the state. A claim for money may have been filed by someone else so data may have been removed from the database pending proof of ownership; and in a few states, after 10 years, the state will transfer money to the state treasury.
Source: Good Morning America, Yahoo News, Unclaimed Money Finder, AZ-UCP

Benefits of Using a Private Investigation Firm to Represent You

Private investigators help people recover assets they would not have known existed. When considering representation when filing for Unclaimed Property, it’s beneficial to be working with professionals who are familiar with laws governing the state were the unclaimed property was located. They will be familiar with all the forms that will be filed, The proper identification, probate laws, court properties, co-claimants and joint claims, beneficiaries, un-redacted wills, death certificates, judicial authority, requirements for claiming personal property and business property, etc. Hiring a professional can ensure you receive all of the unclaimed funds you are entitled to and that your claim is handled with efficiency.
Source: National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, Arizona Department of Revenue – Unclaimed Property Unit, www.azunclaimed.gov, Utah State Treasurer

Heir Tracing – A Complex Matter of Facts

It is not uncommon when an individual passes away that their heirs (related or unrelated) are unaware that there is an existing inheritance. Typically required by Trust and Estate Officers or by attorneys, heir searches can be complex. Possible heirs will need to provide required legal documentation to establish their identities to the individual and prove that they are related as a family member. Heir searches may also be conducted on behalf of guardians, executors, private fiduciaries, conservators and trustees.
Source: National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, Arizona Department of Revenue – Unclaimed Property Unit, www.azunclaimed.gov, National Unclaimed Property

Searches for heirs can take a day or can become quite complicated taking an incredible amount of research on the Internet, in courthouses, libraries, census records, birth, death and adoption, marriage or divorce records. Investigators are not only researchers they become genealogists.

  • Direct Search – A search could involve searching for one individual or expanded to search for the individual’s family members such as children, if the property owner is deceased.
  • Multiple Search – A Multiple Search would include locating multiple related individuals if those initially located are found deceased.
  • Heirs at Law – When attempting to identify heirs for a trust or estate, law requires heirs to be located in order of consanguinity
  • Lineal Search – A Lineal Search must identify if the deceased have any living relatives such as; children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. If no living lineal relatives can be located, a lineal search can be conducted to one generation back, referred to as Level I Heirs.
  • Level I Heirs –are comprised of; parents, siblings (whole or half), nieces, or nephews. If no heirs can be located probate law may require the search to be expanded to Level II Heirs.
  • Level II Heirs – could include; grandparents, aunts, uncles, first cousins and usually requires both maternal and paternal searches.
  • Level III Heirs – though not a common search this type includes; great-grandparents and their descendants.

Once you have confirmed the legitimacy of the heir-finder, a simple contract should be signed agreeing to the proposed fees up to 30% that will include all services conducted by the heir-finder. Beware of any company requesting a down-payment of services. Legitimate heir-finders will not expect payment until the property has been returned to rightful owner. In Arizona, the Department of Revenue requires a copy of the contract and payment is issued separately and directly to the heir-finder by the Arizona Department of Revenue. Claims are usually processed within 90 to 120 days.
Source: Arizona Department of Revenue – Unclaimed Property Unit , www.azunclaimed.gov

California Requirements

The state of California reports the return of $399.5 million in unclaimed property returned to owners during 2009-2010. California has made incredible strides in efforts to reunite unclaimed property with their rightful owners or heirs and is currently pursuing additional reforms to include:

  • Restored interest paid on claims.
  • Imposing strict penalties on banks, utility companies, insurance companies and other businesses that fail to comply with law and notify customers of unclaimed property they are holding.
  • Allow the state to keep property deemed as having no commercial value for 7 years, instead of 18 months, allowing families to recover heirlooms, photos and other items of personal value.

California requires a signed full disclosure contract between the owner and the private investigator specifying where the property is coming from and has an agreement between the owner and investigator of the amount of payment due not to exceed 10% of the value of the property as stated in California Code of Civil Procedure – Section 1582. Fees charged by investigators should include all services connected with returning property to the rightful owner or heir. No fee restrictions exist for investigators filing for owners or heirs of County Probated Estates.
Source: California State Controller

Indiana Requirements

The state of Indiana reports approximately $361.1 million in unclaimed assets held in trust. Indiana does not require heir-finders to be licensed private investigators and according to Indiana law heir-finders can charge up to 10% of the total of unclaimed property. Again, it is advisable to never pay anyone in advance when entering a contract for representation.
Source: Indiana Unclaimed

How to Prevent Your Property from Becoming Abandoned?

  • Keep good records of all bank accounts.
  • Record stock certificates and cash,and all dividend checks received.
  • Record all security deposits to include, utilities, rental properties. Telephone, etc.
  • When moving be sure to notify all banking, broker, credit card companies, insurance companies, safe deposit box account are properly notified. Also send notification if you are to get married or divorced.
  • Ensure you have a will and place it in a location it will be found in the event of emergency or inform a trusted friend or attorney of its location.

Source: Maine Treasurer, National Unclaimed Property Network, Utah State Treasurer

About the Author: Kym L. Pasqualini is founder of the Nation’s Missing Children Organization in 1994 and the National Center for Missing Adults in 2000. Kym is an expert in the field of missing persons and continues to advocate for crime victims utilizing 20 years’ experience working with government officials, law enforcement, advocates, private investigators, and national media.

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