Getting Back Your Unclaimed Cash

Apr 29, 2014
Originally published on April 29, 2014 12:40 pm
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Now to matters of personal finance. We often talk about ways to keep more money in your wallet, whether through better budgeting or avoiding scams. But it turns out there is some money that might actually be sitting around trying to get into your pockets.

How is this possible, you say. Unclaimed funds. It turns out, according to our friend, consumer columnist Sheryl Harris, you often have money tucked away that you didn't know about, just like those coins in a sofa cushion, only better. Right, Sheryl?

SHERYL HARRIS: Exactly, lots better.

MARTIN: Are there any figures on how much unclaimed money is out there?

HARRIS: I don't know an aggregate figure, but there are billions of dollars. And New York State alone holds $12 billion for residents. Each and every state holds unclaimed funds. Municipalities hold them. Counties hold them. State governments hold a lot because they're the repositories for stuff that comes from businesses. And then the federal government also holds unclaimed funds.

MARTIN: How is this possible? I think that some people might be listening to this and saying, how is it possible that the government has money that you are owed that you don't know that they have? How is this possible? Where does this money come from?

HARRIS: Well, OK. So let's just take the IRS, for example. They're holding, like, $900 million for about 990,000 taxpayers who either had refunds that were undeliverable - the IRS tried to deliver them, and they couldn't be delivered. Or, you know, maybe they didn't make enough to file in a certain year. So they never bothered to file, but they were still eligible to claim money.

And actually, if you don't owe the government money, you can file a tax return even years later and collect that money. And the IRS holds it there for, you know, more than a decade actually. They hold these funds in case you want to go back and re-claim a refund from another year. So that's one way.

But more often, really it's just that we forget about a bank account, we move and forget to tell our landlord where we're going so he can't return our security deposit - just little mistakes that we make. They wind up with businesses, and sooner or later, states say, hey, if you can't find this customer anymore, you have to turn the money over to us for safekeeping. And they hold it until you claim it.

MARTIN: Or those savings bond that used to be popular...

HARRIS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...And they mature, and you forgot about it and...

HARRIS: Right. The Treasury holds, you know, millions of dollars in, you know, savings bond, T-bills, all of that stuff. And they're all in unclaimed slush funds.

MARTIN: So the big question - how do you find out if there is some money waiting for you?

HARRIS: Well, I wish it were really easy but you have to squirrel...

MARTIN: Oh, see. There you go.

HARRIS: ...Around to a bunch of different places.

MARTIN: You set us up, and now we're all excited...

HARRIS: No, no, no.

MARTIN: ...To think that we got some cash coming...

HARRIS: It's more easy than...

MARTIN: ...And you're saying now it's going to be hard. OK, go ahead.

HARRIS: OK. Well, the easiest place to start is to go to your state unclaimed funds repository. It's your state government. will take you to all of those sites - jumping-off sites for all those states.

MARTIN: So you start with

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...And then you go figure out where - not just where you live now, but where you used to live, right?

HARRIS: Exactly, and then you can search for relatives in whatever states they were also in. And it's possible that you could claim, as an heir, unclaimed funds that were left to, you know, an ancestor. In fact, there are also unclaimed inheritances that counties hold.

But I think the easiest place to start is with the state, and then you might work your way to the federal government and look for those - the bonds. There are unclaimed pensions that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation holds - you know, companies that went out of business and transferred their pensions for safekeeping there. There are railroad pensions that are also unclaimed.

And a good place to start for those federal searches is And that's just a general, you know, where - you know, clearinghouse for government information. And if you put unclaimed funds in the search, you'll get a page of a bunch of likely websites that you can spring off to that are federal sites that hold unclaimed funds for you.

MARTIN: Now, previously, though, you have warned us against services that charge a fee...

HARRIS: Right.

MARTIN: ...To get you services that are actually free to you. I mean, if it's a service and you really don't have time to do it, you know, maybe it's worth it to you to pay a fee. Is there something you should be thinking about...

HARRIS: Yes. OK...

MARTIN: ...Along those lines?

HARRIS: ...So there are companies called finders, and very often they're hired by companies to hook up people who have unclaimed funds with the company before it has to turn it over to the state. So sometimes they have a little bit of window of time. If you wait, those funds will transfer to the state and you can just get them for yourself later on. Anything a finder can do for you, you can do yourself for free.

But I would say, if you're tempted to use a finder, you should definitely check out the company with the Better Business Bureau first because very often some of these companies want you to sign a release that gets them the funds. And some of them don't turn the money back over to the person. So I would be very sure of who you're working with if you attempt to do it.

But it is a blast to go on these websites and look for your name and find it. And I would say just for fun, get together with your family. Get online. Look for unclaimed funds. It's a blast, and it's even more fun if you find something.

MARTIN: OK. That's how Sheryl has fun. Great. Some of us want to go to see "Captain America." I'm just saying. But - so thank you for this. It's, like, a happy story, something you could do maybe on a rainy afternoon. But...

HARRIS: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Is there a way that you would recommend that - if you say to yourself, you know, I might be guilty of this, I might be leaving money on the table, or you're about to move or something like that...


MARTIN: Is there something you want to tell people to be sure that they do so they don't wind up having, you know - their kids having to hunt down their, you know, unclaimed bank accounts later...


MARTIN: ...However fun it may be?

HARRIS: Definitely, when you move, fill out a change of address form. But in addition to that, notify every business that you do, you know, business with - your banks, your landlord, your, you know, utilities companies. Notify them of your next address so they can send you refunds if you're due those. That's the biggest way things get lost.

And when you fill out a change of address form and you move and you find it important letter that comes with that forwarding, you know, sticker on it, contact that company and tell them where you are now. The biggest way people get out of touch with their money is they lose touch with the businesses that have it.

MARTIN: I bet a lot of people are in the situation where they have a parent who maybe falls ill and dies before revealing where all the bank accounts are and things of that sort. And you say to yourself, you know, OK, I've finally gotten all this paperwork done, now I want to go on a search for perhaps unclaimed bank accounts owned by a parent...


MARTIN: ...For example, or an elderly relative for whom you have been responsible. What do you do if you are not the account holder yourself, but you are a child or an heir? What do you do?

HARRIS: Well, if - OK. So if they're living and you have a power of attorney, then you should be able to go and claim the funds. You would want to talk with an attorney if you're trying to reclaim bank funds from a bank because banks have really strict standards about that.

If they're deceased, you can often claim the unclaimed funds as long as you have a death certificate and, say, your birth certificate. You can show your relationship. You can show you were the heir of that person. So there's a way to do that.

But I want to tell you a cautionary tale about safe-deposit boxes. Some states actually will scoop up the property in the boxes and safekeep it for you. Buy many states, including Ohio, don't. They only keep cash. And that means when a safe-deposit box goes unclaimed for certain period of time, the bank can have the box drilled open, can auction off the property, can take its proceeds out of the cash, all its costs out of the cash and then move the rest of the cash to the state. And I've had families who've lost really lovely heirloom jewelry or sentimental things with sentimental value, important documents like, you know, love letters and adoption papers - things that are only of value to them, but that can't be transferred to the state for safekeeping.

So if your relative has a safe-deposit box, I would talk to them very carefully about whether they're current on their rent or if they can tell you where their box is and where the key is kept just in case there's ever an emergency because you'll need that.

MARTIN: Good advice. Sheryl Harris is consumer columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. She was with us from member station WCPN in Cleveland. Sheryl, thank you so much for joining us.

HARRIS: You're welcome, Michel. It's always fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.