How I Found $20,000 My Parents Didn’t Know They Lost

A few years ago it became apparent that my parents weren’t taking care of themselves. We moved them back to Virginia from Florida and eventually into an assisted living facility. I also took over managing their finances.

Going through their documents, I found a series of letters from attorneys, CPAs and others stating that a lot of money was owed my parents by the state. The writers of these letters promised to have the money returned, after deducting a fee for recovering it.

At first I thought this was some easy-money scam. After reviewing the letters, however, I realized they were talking about unclaimed property, or escheated property, that the state was holding until the rightful owners claimed it. The state would return the money without charging a fee, though the state invests any cash and claimed interest earned by it.

Sure enough, it turned out that there was “free money” available to my parents, and it didn’t take much work to get it.

Money and assets are most likely to have been lost when you moved. Often, a payment such as the return of a deposit isn’t forwarded to you and is returned to the payer. Other times, the postal service simply loses a payment, or an electronic deposit isn’t made because the account was closed or a number was entered incorrectly. The payer usually will make efforts to locate you, but not always. Either way, after a period of time most established firms classify the money as unclaimed property and turn it over to the state of your last known address. The state will hold it as a guardian until you claim it.

Another common way money is lost, especially by seniors, is inertia and inactivity. Generally, if a firm holds assets for you and hasn’t heard from you or seen any activity in the account for a period of time, it will consider classifying the assets as unclaimed property.

Some states have rigorous rules. Florida, for example, requires that if a business hasn’t seen any activity or had contact with you for one to five years (depending on the type of property), the property is considered abandoned and has to be turned over to the state after efforts are made to reach you. The effort made by most firms is to send a letter to the last address they have on record stating that if they don’t hear from you by a certain date the property will be turned over to the state.

These processes of identifying property as unclaimed and turning it over to the state traditionally are known as escheatment, and the property is an escheated asset. But the most common term used today is unclaimed property. It’s sometimes called abandoned property. The state holds the unclaimed property until you file a claim and prove your identity. Then, it is returned to you. But you won’t receive any income earned by the property while the state held it. The state uses the income.

As I found when searching for my parents’ lost money, these days the claiming process is online. In most states, the process of searching and claiming is fairly easy. Based on my experience, it should take only an hour or so for most people to locate any unclaimed property and apply for its recovery.

To claim property, you need a list of the states in which you (or the person you’re claiming for) have lived and, preferably, the exact addresses in each state. To start, in the search box on your favorite search engine, enter the name of the state and “unclaimed assets.” For example: “Virginia unclaimed assets.” You can enter “escheat” instead of “unclaimed assets.”

One of the first listings should be a link to the unclaimed property office of the state treasurer or finance office. Click on that, and on the next page should be a link for claiming property. Florida chose a separate web site with the catchy address “”

From here, the states vary a little. Generally, you enter the first and last names of the person with the missing property and sometimes all or part of the Social Security number. Then click “search.”

Some states present a list of addresses and have you click on addresses where the person lived. Then, the site shows a list of assets they might be holding for the person. Others will show a list of names similar to yours with relevant addresses and have you click on the combination of names and address that are yours.

Once any unclaimed assets of yours are identified, most states require you to file a paper application to claim them. Most of the information can be entered into an online form. You print, sign and return it with proof of identity. Proof can include a photocopy of a driver’s license or passport. The tricky part is many states requires some proof you lived at the old address, such as a utility bill or other document with your name and the address. If you don’t have such proof, an alternative process usually is available butwill take more time.

After you mail in the form and the proof, the state will process it and eventually send a check (or a rejection letter). Processing can take from 60 days to six months, depending on the state, the value of the assets and the proof you provide.

That’s the process for most types of assets, but the process is different for employer retirement accounts, annuities and life insurance.

Retirement accounts are most likely to be unclaimed by someone who worked at a firm early in adulthood and forgot about earned retirement benefits or a 401(k) account that was left at the firm. The former employer also might have merged with other firms, disrupting its records, so it lost track of your address. Another possibility is the employer transferred the pension liability to an insurance company.

To locate a lost retirement account, you have to contact former employers. Have the details about when you worked at the employer, where you worked and what jobs or titles you held. You might have to complete a paper form or enter information on the employer’s website. The employer should be able to search its records, determine if you have an unclaimed retirement benefit or account and also let you know if an insurance company took over the retirement obligation.

For life insurance and annuities, you need to contact individual insurers with which you have or had a policy. You should have some paperwork from the insurer with basic information about the account.

As I said, I found more than $20,000 my parents were owed. Most of the money was misdirected after my parents moved from Virginia to Florida and then moved to a second location in Florida. The money included utility deposits and rebates, dividend checks, inactive accounts and more.

It’s a good idea to undertake the unclaimed property search and claim while the person is alive. The claiming process for any of these assets can be more difficult after the owner passes away. Families should have conversations about the potential for unclaimed property. Adult children, for example, can do a quick search of all the states in which their parents have lived while their parents are sitting nearby. The parents can confirm old addresses and other details. Once the parents see amounts of unclaimed property next to their names, they’ll probably be eager to help in the process.

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