Is the Government Holding Your Unclaimed Money?

06/28/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Considering how frequently many people move, switch jobs and change their names, it's not surprising that state treasuries and other federal, state and local agencies are sitting on more than $33 billion in unclaimed assets. That doesn't even include billions of dollars in unredeemed U.S. savings and treasury bonds and federal income tax refunds that were returned to the IRS as undeliverable.

Whether you're pinching pennies or simply want to claim what's rightfully yours, consider spending a few minutes searching for forgotten accounts that belong to you or were in the names of deceased relatives.

Start with the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). This non-profit organization provides tips on finding your money, as well as links to unclaimed property programs maintained by each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and several Canadian provinces. Click on Compliance Resources at their website for links to each state's program. Many of these individual state programs also participate in, a free, centralized database search engine officially endorsed by NAUPA.

Companies are required to surrender balances from accounts that have been inactive for one year or longer to the state of the owner's last known address, but you should also check sites for other states where you have lived or done business, just in case. To broaden your chances, search under several variations of your name (such as first name and middle initial, first and middle initials, last name first, etc.), as well as common misspellings.

Unclaimed property being held by states might include: checking and savings accounts, stocks, uncashed dividends or payroll checks, state tax refunds, traveler's checks, trust distributions, insurance payments or refunds, annuities, CDs, customer overpayments, utility security deposits and proceeds from auctions of contents from safe deposit boxes.

NAUPA also provides a handy round-up of links to Other Sources for Unclaimed Property, such as unclaimed veteran's benefits, missing savings bonds and unclaimed foreign bank accounts.

Another bountiful resource is the IRS. In 2009, the IRS retained more than $120 million in unclaimed federal income tax refund checks, mostly those that had been sent to the wrong address. If you never received an expected refund or simply want to check the status of your current filing, go to the Where's My Refund page for instructions. Two tips:

  • Verify that the IRS has your correct address whenever you file taxes.
  • Sign up for direct deposit of future refunds to prevent misdirected checks.

Find old pensions. Although pension plans are becoming an increasingly rare employee benefit, if you've had a long work history, worked for several employers or belonged to multiple unions, you may have accrued pension benefits along the way that you've forgotten about. Even for those pensions you're aware of, unless you've been diligent about updating your address with old employers whenever you move, they might have difficulty finding you at retirement. Plus, many companies have merged or gone out of business, so records may have been lost or misfiled.

To find previous employers or their successor companies, you might try running a search through a library, historical society or chamber of commerce in the community where they operated, or contacting former coworkers or unions. Other helpful organizations include the Public Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which protects and guarantees most pension plans, including those that closed or went bankrupt, PensionHelp America, and the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration.

A couple of cautions: There are many legitimate companies that use states' freedom of information acts to obtain owner information for unclaimed accounts. They contact individuals and offer to help find lost property for a fee (often a percentage of the total). But be aware that there are many scammers out there, so tread carefully. Before signing any contract, contact your state's unclaimed property office to make sure the company is legitimate.

Also, beware of emails or letters purporting to be from the state treasurer asking you to supply personal information -- either by mail or by logging into a website link provided. This is how many cases of identity theft begin. If in doubt, contact your state treasurer or controller's office yourself to make sure the contact was legitimate.

This article is intended to provide general information and should not be considered tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how tax laws apply to you and about your individual financial situation.

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