$106 million awaits owners Windfall: The amount of Marylanders' unclaimed money has increased, and the state aims to reunite the funds with unknowing beneficiaries.

November 09, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

There may be no simple reason why $106 million is sitting at the state comptroller's office, waiting to be found by thousands of unknowing Marylanders.

Modern life, modern finances, communication gaps, forgetfulness. Or maybe it's that most people are absolutely, positively certain they know where their money is.

Charles and Ann Ridgeway thought they did. But a few weeks ago, almost on a lark, Mr. Ridgeway checked family names on the comptroller's list of unclaimed property at the Maryland State Fair and discovered $30,000 in the retirement account of a deceased relative.

"I was incredulous," said Ridgeway, a retired Howard County teacher. "We're still somewhat in a state of shock. It was just not real until we received the check."

Just as stunned was a Northwest Baltimore widow who learned from The Sun on Wednesday that she has about $40,000 in stock listed with the state under a name and address she hadn't used in years.

"Oh! Oh, my goodness," said the 68-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be published. Twenty-eight years ago, she knew, her father had left her a small amount of stock, but she said she'd lost track of it. She had no idea how the value of the untouched, unclaimed certificates had ballooned.

"This is very welcome," said the woman, who lives on a modest income from other investments. "When you get near the end of life, you don't realize what you need."

The pool of missing money in Maryland is growing. In 1992 it amounted to $62 million. Today, it's worth $106.2 million.

It's not that people are losing more money, say state officials.Banks, insurers and other companies are simply becoming more conscientious about adhering to a law that requires them to report abandoned money -- that is, accounts that have been inactive for five or more years.

Enticed by fresh lists of names published twice a year in newspapers statewide and on a Web site, the public is also becoming more aware.

This year, the comptroller's office has fielded more than 59,000 inquiries about lost accounts, and paid on 7,761 of those.

The balances in more than 300,000 accounts are unclaimed -- some going back 30 years.

It is often the person most convinced that his name could not possibly be on the list who suddenly discovers a hidden nest egg, according to the comptroller's staff. Much of the money falling through the cracks is not of the nickel-and-dime variety. The average amount paid last year was $1,200.

"I love it when they tell us they know where their money is," said Marie Weems, a comptroller staff member who volunteers in her office's fair booths, where she encourages passers-by to check for their names in the computer.

A couple of years ago, she prodded, pleaded and ultimately persuaded one young man to check the list. He entered the booth and discovered $12,000 in a forgotten account from a family company.

"Just imagine, he would have walked on," Weems said. "I was overjoyed."

But even a few thousand dollars is not enough to raise eyebrows in the unclaimed property office on West Preston Street in Baltimore, where a staff of eight connects lost accounts with their rightful owners and delivers the good news every day.

"To get us talking about an account among ourselves? It needs to be at least $100,000," said Weems, who has worked there 10 years.

There was the Prince George's County man who learned the state had $186,000 for him from an unknown right-of-way claim dating to the 1800s.

And the needy elderly woman whose relatives discovered she had stuffed uncashed dividend checks worth more than $200,000 under her bed for years.

And the Montgomery County resident who earlier this year received $355,000 in stock that had gone undetected among his late father's assets.

Money that is reported to the state and unclaimed after a year goes into the general fund until the time -- whenever that may be -- when the rightful owner calls for it. There is no deadline.

Meanwhile, state workers say they usually make at least five attempts to track down the owners through mailings, the Internal Revenue Service, and even by finding relatives or neighbors if the sum exceeds $5,000.

It seems easier to lose money than most of us would think.

"People move around," said Marcia Stinemire of the comptroller's office. Many simply lose track of accounts or employment benefits as they go from job to job or state to state, she said. "They forget to file change-of-address forms, or they forget about fTC old bank accounts or insurance policies."

In many cases, the financial road maps in family estates are incomplete.

Ann Ridgeway was especially startled when her husband returned from the fair and informed her about his $30,000 discovery -- money from her late brother's retirement account -- because she had been the executor of the estate.

"He was a penny pincher, very careful with his money," she said. "Typically, he gave $10 for Christmas." When he retired from his teaching job, she said, she assumed he had cashed in his retirement account.

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