Did you know the state can legally take money from your bank account or the contents of your safe deposit box and add it to the state treasury? No, I’m not talking about the state hijacking the assets of a drug runner or other criminal. I’m talking about the state seizing your money.
Each state has abandoned property laws, often called escheatment laws, which allow them to claim abandoned property such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds, safe deposit box holdings and more. Property is classified as abandoned or unclaimed when a customer’s account goes dormant for an extended period of time – sometimes as little as a year, but usually 3 to 5 years. The good news is that any regular activity such as a balance inquiry, deposit, withdrawal, or other form of customer contact is sufficient to keep your account open and from being seized.
Why do escheatment laws exist?
The intent of the laws are to return unclaimed assets to their rightful owners. After property is determined to be abandoned, the state maintains possession of the money, stocks, items in your safe deposit box, or anything else that is covered under individual state law. The purpose is not to enrich the state, but rather to protect your items from being seized by the company holding your belongings if you lose contact with the company. Unclaimed property laws require companies to turn over forgotten funds to a state official who is charged with locating the proper owner or his/her heirs.
The state will hold your property until you are located and fill out a claim form and verify your identity. At that time the state will return your belongings at little to no cost to you (sometimes a minimal handling fee will apply). However, states cannot always store and maintain all the contents from safe deposit boxes or in brokerage accounts, so they may be liquidated and the assets held in cash form until they can be returned to the rightful owner.
What is covered under unclaimed property laws?
Unclaimed property laws cover bank accounts including savings and checking accounts, business accounts, stocks, dividend checks, uncashed payroll checks, insurance payments, annuities, certificates of deposit, tax refunds, stimulus checks, trust distributions, and more.
For more information, go to the unclaimed property website, which is run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), the national group that represents states that hold unclaimed property.
How much money do states hold as unclaimed property?
We’re talking about a lot of money here. In 2006, $1.75 billion was returned to the rightful owners which was held in over 1.93 million accounts. There is currently at least $32.9 billion being held by state treasurers and other agencies across 117 million accounts, and that number is growing. States claimed $4.7 billion in 2006 from business accounts where contact has been lost with the owners.
How to prevent having your property seized
Banks are required by law to notify customers that their accounts are in danger of being closed and their funds seized. If the bank is unable to contact you at your last known residence or you do not respond, the bank is forced to hand over the funds to the state and you will no longer accrue interest in your account. To regain control of your funds you need to go through a claims process.
How can I search for unclaimed property?
You can search the NAUPA database at Unclaimed.org to find unclaimed paychecks and other unclaimed property. You can also check MissingMoney.com, which is the only national database endorsed by NAUPA.
These database searches are FREE, and are the only authorized places to do a free search for your abandoned property. There are many companies out there that use the freedom of information act, in conjunction with sites such as Missing Money to find missing property for people. If a company offers to do a search for you and charges a fee, or offers to retrieve unclaimed property on your behalf, run! They aren’t offering you anything you can’t do yourself, free of charge.
How to prevent abandoned property
To prevent having your assets classified as unclaimed or abandoned property, you need to be in contact with your account holder at least once a year (or less often, depending on your state). The good news is that contacting the company once will cover multiple accounts.
Escheatment laws apply to joint accounts and minors as well, so it is best to perform regular activity for those accounts as well.
Here are some tips on how to avoid having your assets classified as abandoned:
- Make a list of all your accounts including bank accounts, retirement accounts, brokerage and investment accounts, insurance policies, trusts, safe deposit boxes, and other accounts and keep it in a safe place. This will help you stay organized and remember which accounts remain active.
- Login to any online account at least once a year.
- For each bank or brokerage account, make at least one balance inquiry, deposit or withdrawal each year.
- Cash or deposit checks when you receive them (checks are usually only good for 6 months).
- Visit your safe deposit box at least once a year.
- Notify any holder of funds of an address change or a name change.
- Use gift cards, traveler’s checks and gift certificates promptly (some gift cards expire or will not be honored when companies are in financial trouble).