Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: Government agencies are holding onto money with your name on it. All you’ve got to do is claim it. It sounds too good to be true, right? Actually, it’s legit.

By law, states become custodians of unclaimed property and hold it until its rightful owners step up and make a claim. Let’s take a quick look at how money ends up in states’ hands and what you can do to get yours. 

How does money end up in unclaimed property?

Let’s say you do some small bit of freelance work for a business. Or maybe you’re due for a rebate on a purchase you made. The business that owes you money will usually cut you a check and drop it in the mail. Under normal circumstances, you’d find the check in your mailbox, deposit it in your bank account, and the transaction would be complete. 

Anyone who’s used the postal service knows that circumstances aren’t always normal. Maybe the check gets lost in the mail. Maybe you move to a new address and the check never gets forwarded. Or maybe you receive the check and forget to cash it. Either way, the check never gets cashed. 

Forgotten bank accounts, insurance payouts, travelers checks, certificates of deposits, rebates, dividends and more can get lost over time and end up getting abandoned.

In theory, you might think this situation is a windfall for the business whose check you never cashed. In practice, though, the party that owes you money doesn’t get to pocket the unclaimed payment. Instead, if a check isn’t cashed for a few years or if your account statements keep getting returned in the mail, a business is legally required to hand over your assets to the state for safekeeping. 

Uncashed checks are just one type of asset that can end up in unclaimed property funds. Forgotten bank accounts, insurance payouts, travelers checks, certificates of deposits, rebates, stocks and dividends, annuities, and more can get lost over time and end up getting abandoned. The party that had been holding these assets for you then turns them over to the state. 

How much money are we talking?

Lots. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, a group of state officials who administer these funds, said in 2015 that they were collectively holding over $40 billion. Today, that figure has swelled to nearly $100 billion. It’s worth investigating if any of those billions belong to you! 

How can I find out if I have any unclaimed funds?

State treasurers maintain databases of unclaimed funds that are generally easy to navigate. In most cases, if you Google your state’s name and “unclaimed property,” you’ll be taken to a government site that will allow you to search for missing funds in your name. 

Even easier, there’s a unified database at MissingMoney.com that consolidates unclaimed property records from 40 states, one Canadian province, and Puerto Rico.  If you think you may have specific types of unclaimed funds, you may need to turn to a more specialized government database, like the ones covering unpaid wages, accounts at failed banks, FHA-insured mortgages, VA life insurance policies, or unclaimed pensions.

 Is making a claim expensive?

Third-party services may contact you with offers to help you collect your unclaimed property in exchange for a cut of what they recover, but you can politely decline.

Nope. It’s free. Third-party services may contact you with offers to help you collect your unclaimed property in exchange for a cut of what they recover, but you can politely decline. In most cases, you can track down and claim your property without any outside assistance. The state governments that hold onto unclaimed funds for safekeeping don’t charge a fee or interest to get your money back in your hands. If you had an unclaimed check for $500, you’ll be able to get the full $500 back. 

How much work does it take?

After hearing that a friend had been able to claim some missing funds, I took MissingMoney.com for a spin. I was surprised to find two records that were linked to my previous addresses, one in my current state and one at an old apartment of mine in New York. 

The records on MissingMoney.com are a bit vague about how much money you’re owed and why it’s coming your way. For my unclaimed funds in my current state, the site could only tell me that I was owed less than $100 from American Express. My record in New York showed that I had over $100 coming to me from a company for which I used to do some freelance work. My last work for this company was completed nearly nine years ago, so I didn’t hold out hope of a huge windfall. 

When I selected my records on MissingMoney.com, links took me to the official site of the state treasurers in the states that were holding my missing funds. Some states require you to print out and mail in a claim form, but many states allow you to make your claim online. On each site, I filled in some basic info about myself, provided my current address, and indicated that I wasn’t committing a crime by falsely claiming someone else’s money. Easy enough! Submitting the two claims took less than 10 minutes.

In both instances, the confirmation message I received after filling out the form indicated that I might be asked to provide further documentation like a Social Security card or utility bill to verify my identity and address, but that never happened. Instead, I just sat back and waited for my unclaimed ship to come in.  

Does it work?

I had mostly forgotten about my claims when I received my first check in the mail a couple of weeks later. It was from my current state. American Express had apparently owed me $10. It wasn’t life-changing (or even day-changing) money, but given that it only took two or three minutes to submit my claim, I called it a win. 

I was even happier when my check for my unclaimed New York property came the next day. I figured I’d probably get $100 or so, which would have been delightful in its own right. To my surprise, I received a check for $1,400! 

These payments from unclaimed property funds don’t come with detailed invoices or descriptions of what the original payment was for, so I’m unclear on exactly what work I did in 2011 that netted me this cash. The sloppy bookkeeping methods I used in my younger days must have led to me missing a check. Whatever the reason, I was pretty excited to “find” $1,400 I hadn’t been expecting. 

Even if you don’t think anyone owes you unclaimed funds, it’s worth taking a quick dive into the database at MissingMoney.com or your state’s treasury page to make sure. It doesn’t take much time, and it can be extremely rewarding. I’ve never brought home $1,410 for less than 10 minutes’ worth of work before, and I doubt I ever will again. Here’s hoping you get just as lucky in your search. Happy hunting! 

See Also: 4 retirement factors to focus on beyond your finances

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