By: Kym Pasqualini, Feature Writer for Lauth Investigations
Have you ever found a $20 bill in your laundry and felt you just won the lottery? Most people would be ecstatic to realize they forgot to empty their pockets but what happens to money you don’t know exists? Hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars.
You may be surprised how many people in this country have unclaimed assets they may never know existed . . . unless they look for it.
Currently, it is estimated local, state and federal agencies collectively hold more than $58 billion in unclaimed assets, roughly $175 for every U.S. resident. However, experts estimate there may be as much as $100 billion languishing in unclaimed cash and benefits held in local, state and federal agencies. We do know, daily, the amount of unclaimed funds increases.
According to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, every state including the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands has lost assets, commonly referred to as unclaimed funds.
What are Lost Assets?
The unclaimed property law or escheatment was first enacted in 1954. The purpose of the act is to provide a central repository in each state, so citizens can seek lost assets belonging to them. Each state maintains a comprehensive list of the unclaimed assets.
Unclaimed funds are financial assets owed to an individual or business not claimed or have unknown ownership. Examples of unclaimed assets or funds are the following:
- Uncashed payroll checks
- Dormant bank accounts
- Safe deposit boxes
- Customer overpayments
- Security deposits
- Insurance payments
- Unclaimed dividends
- Unclaimed securities
- Traveler’s checks, money orders, cashier’s checks
- Principal on debt
- Escrow balances
- Old stock certificates
- Mining Certificates
- Mineral royalty payments
- Property held by courts and other governmental agencies
All businesses must forward all unclaimed funds or property to their state in accordance with their state’s escheat laws. Ideally, the state holds unclaimed funds in a trust and attempts to locate the rightful owner – except it doesn’t always work in that way.
Unfortunately, since 2006, a mere 5% of lost assets has been returned to rightful owners.
The Escheatment Process
Unclaimed property is governed by state laws requiring all unclaimed assets be turned over to the state to be held in trust. For example, if a bank account is inactive for a lengthy period, commonly within one year, the state can claim the funds in the account through a process known as escheatment.
Escheatment accounts are defined as dormant, unclaimed or abandoned. For instance, banks are responsible for reporting unclaimed property to the state after a certain amount of dormancy. Each state has a different time frame before the state escheats the assets to safeguard them.
In Arizona, a financial institution must report securities property after a period of 3 years dormancy and bonds after two years.
The laws are strict. A company could be fined by the Arizona Department of Revenue a civil penalty of 25% of the value of the unclaimed asset or abandoned property or $100 per day up to $5,000.
The only tangible property covered is the contents of safe deposit boxes. However, for contents of safe deposit boxes, periodic auctions are conducted by most states and proceeds from the sale of items are held for a rightful owner.
While unclaimed, the policy for unclaimed funds is they should be used for the “greater good” of the public, until such time as it is returned to the rightful owner. Without affecting the state’s obligation to return unclaimed funds, collections are used to finance operations such as public schools and college scholarships.
In 1951, the U.S. Supreme Court stated in the Standard Oil Co. vs New Jersey case, “Property that escapes seizure by would-be possessors and is used for the general good rather than the chance enrichment of particular individuals or organizations.”
In 2015, $3.235 billion was returned by state government unclaimed property agencies to rightful owners or heirs.
What is an Heir?
An heir is the “rightful owner” of lost assets/funds or a person in ranking who is entitled to inherit property if the rightful owner is deceased, sometimes referred to as a logical heir.
An heir can be an individual or a company such as a business or corporation, church or charity, or hospital.
Defining the Source
A government database of centralized information does not exist; therefore, each federal agency maintains its own records. When looking for lost assets this can create confusion and, in reality, often makes the property hard to find.
- United State Treasury reports an estimated 25,000 payments are returned as undeliverable.
- US Bankruptcy Courts reports approximately $200 million dollars is waiting to be claimed.
- Class Action Lawsuits have generally 95% of the funds as unclaimed.
- Savings Bonds show an estimated 40 million savings bonds have gone unredeemed, equaling an estimated $16.5 billion dollars.
- Life Insurance reveals there is approximately $1 billion dollars unclaimed due to lost or unknown policies.
Lost assets can be found in the most unlikely places.
In an Oklahoma News 4 report, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesperson Matt Skinner said, “You were someone who had an ancestor who owned minerals in 1910, [and] that’s still the name on the minerals, then if you can prove those minerals were part of an estate that came to you, you would get the money that is in the fund.”
For any given property, there might be dozens, sometimes hundreds, of oil and mineral owners. Much of the time, people are second and third generation and the original rights are still in the parents or grandparents names who have passed away.
While each state maintains their own database, the resources to find the owners of the property are minimal, even nonexistent. Some states advertise on their websites and others in the local newspapers. Clearly, with only 5% return on total lost assets, these methods are not effective.
With the lack of a national database, finding lost assets can be difficult for most individuals and makes it necessary to find help.
Prior to turning over unclaimed property to the state as required by law, businesses or holders of lost funds may conduct due diligence and often hire companies, referred to as heir finders, to assist in finding the rightful owner of unclaimed assets.
Most states require heir finders to be licensed private investigators to protect consumers.
One may think they don’t need a private investigation firm to represent them; however, there are many benefits to hiring a private investigator to locate lost assets. Experts say it is beneficial to work with professionals who are familiar with specific state laws where the property is located and the ability to obtain procurement of documents and certificates while working efficiently for the client.
Rain Lauth of Lauth Investigations International Lost Assets Division, specializes in finding lost assets and works closely with local, state and federal agencies to provide assistance to consumers, stresses the importance of working with licensed private investigators when searching for lost assets and filing claims for ownership.
“They will be familiar with all the forms that will be filed, the proper identification, probate laws, court properties, co-claimants, death certificates and other required information,” says Lauth.
Lauth Investigations has returned over $15 million to rightful owners since 2013 with an overall success rate of 98% on all claims.
“We take great pride in working with our clients in a caring and professional manner,” said Lauth. “Often the process of locating and claiming lost assets can be an overwhelming experience, but with our extensive resources and a highly skilled team, we diligently seek to make the process of documentation of ownership a painless experience for our clients,” added Lauth.