Billions in property goes unclaimed

December 17, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

Now where did that $8 billion go, anyway?

That's the amount of unclaimed property sitting in state-administered repositories because individual Americans have simply lost sight of their valuables.

They move, forget to give new addresses, overlook deposits or refunds and simply can't remember what precious items they have. In many of these cases, the individual dies and the heirs haven't a clue as to where many keepsakes and investments are stashed.

After a set period in which holdings remain abandoned, typically three to five years as designated by each state's statutes, the state assumes ownership of unclaimed accounts.

Unclaimed property is returned to the state of the property owner's last known address, or, if no owner's address is associated with the property, to the state in which the business holding the property is located.

The state then tries to locate the owners, generally through newspaper advertisements that include the last-known names and addresses.

Besides financial instruments, checks and cash, there's a mind-boggling treasure trove of items that go unclaimed and wind up in the state's coffers.

"At one of our auctions three years ago, we had a huge 'killer' four-carat diamond ring set in platinum that sold for $28,200," related Sarah Marlow, assistant deputy treasurer for Texas. "We also regularly receive dentures and loose teeth and actually had a dead frog once, but the most interesting example was two big boxes of Ethiopian artifacts."

"We have held an unusual trunk since 1980 which is filled with silver, china and crystal from the late 1800s, along with two authentic letters written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," said Ruth White, director of Virginia's Division of Unclaimed Property. "Our usual procedure, however, is to hold an item for one year after we have published the owner's name."

Besides the states, there are private firms that track down owners of dormant investments in exchange for a hefty percentage of the windfall. Take your time, however, since you may be able to find the unclaimed assets yourself without having to share the take.

"If you've ever been contacted by anyone who says he or she knows of some property that's owed you, the very first thing to do is call the unclaimed property department of your state," advised Patty White, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), which represents all states except New York.

In fact, contact any state that might be holding something for you. In nearly all of the states, you can reclaim your property no matter how many years have passed.

Give your name and all former names, Social Security number and all addresses from when you lived in the state. You'll be given an abandoned property claim form if you're owed some money. Return the form with current identification and a document that ties you to the property. To apply for money held in someone else's name, you must establish clear title, such as through a will that makes you beneficiary, or you'll likely need a lawyer.

"Of course, what you really need to do with all of your financial assets to begin with is keep a complete list of them," advised White, who is also director of Colorado's Unclaimed Property Division. (NAUPA can be contacted by writing to Unclaimed Property Division, 1560 Broadway, No. 630, Denver, Colo. 80202.)

Keep accurate financial records of bank accounts, stocks, safe-deposit boxes, life insurance policies and other valuables. Make sure that your interest income gets properly posted and that you correspond regularly with institutions holding checking accounts or individual retirement accounts.

"Notify a family member or trusted adviser about where your records and financial assets are located, so that those assets can be found and won't be turned over to (the state)," added Gilbert Ruiz, director of the Illinois Department of Financial Institutions, which oversees unclaimed property.

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