An estimated $100 billion in personal assets have been mislaid and never found. Retirees and heirs are losing money and investments they could surely use.
How does it happen that so much gets misplaced by so many? I got a letter from a snowbird that could explain one piece of the puzzle.
Every winter he moves from Maine to Florida, going south with the robins. When the dogwoods bloom in the North, he flies back to Maine again."Everyone like me can give you horror stories of lost and misdirected mail," he writes.
He dutifully files change-of-address notices at the post office. Even so, he writes, "every winter we fail to receive quite a few bills, checks, bank notices and so on."
He's not blaming the post office (or at least not much). The culprits are the people who mail you the bills or notices. They may not arrange for their envelopes to be forwarded, even though you've left a forwarding address.
Normal first-class mail, with no special instructions on the envelope, should be forwarded by the post office. That's how you get letters from your friends.
But bills and checks are often handled differently. The mailer may print a short notice just above your address. The notice tells the post office what to do with the envelope, if it can't be delivered to the given address.
If the envelope says "Address Service Requested" or "Forwarding Service Requested," you should receive it at your forwarding address.
When I checked my own mail, I found that my phone company, car insurer and a bank all request Address Service when they send me statements and bills.
Mail will not be forwarded, however, if the envelope says "Change Service Requested" or "Return Service Requested."
With Change Service, the post office sends the mailer your current address, wherever that may be. The envelope itself is thrown away. My frequent-flyer miles come with Change Service.
With Return Service, the post office sends the envelope back to the mailer, along with a notice about your current address. One of my credit-card companies and a bank statement requested Return Service.
With both Change and Return, you never get the envelope, unless the mailer resends it to your new address.
In August 1998, the post office started a special code for snowbirds and people like them. It's called "Temp - Return Service Requested." It can help you when your change-of-address card notes that your move is temporary.
Under Temp service, the mailer has two ways of finding you. The envelope is forwarded automatically. If it still doesn't reach you, it goes back to the mailer, with your new address attached.
But you yourself can't ask the post office to give Temp service to your bills and notices. The mailer has to preprint that particular order on the envelope.
In three days of watching my mail, I didn't get one bill or notice that called for Temp service, which would have the best chance of finding me.
If you're getting checks from the U.S. Treasury, they can normally be forwarded, as long as you left a change-of-address notice with the post office. Social Security checks, for example, are forwarded for up to a year.(But why should you worry yourself about regular government checks? If you have your funds deposited automatically in your bank account, you'll get the money wherever you are.)
When a Treasury check can't be delivered, it's returned to the government and canceled, says Pamela Locks, director of the Treasury's financial processing division. The funds are credited to the issuing agency. To get the check reissued, you have to provide the agency with your correct address.
American mobility is one of the major reasons that money gets mislaid, says Mike Meriton, president of MissingMoney.com, a service developed for state unclaimed property offices. Mail gets lost, people forget about certain assets, heirs never collect.
When mail is returned and owners don't show up, the accounts are supposed to be turned over to the state. MissingMoney.com has the names of people from 25 states and Washington, D.C., to whom money is owed. Meriton hopes to have 40 states on board by the end of the summer.
By the way, my Maine snowbird got some money back. His state representative sent a form letter, telling him that his name was on an "abandoned property" list. He put in a claim and got paid.