Unclaimed Property: Is Missing Money Looking for You?

Daniel DeMeuse of Porterfield, Wis. unclaimed property, missing money
Daniel DeMeuse of Porterfield, Wis. unclaimed property, missing money

One morning in November, Daniel DeMeuse magically awoke $28,000 richer. The 54-year-old unemployed studio artist from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., had been left money in a dear friend's estate 10 years earlier, but because of the slow probate of the will, he'd never learned of the bequest.

That is, not until the funds had gone to the Office of the State Treasurer, who informed him of his windfall.

DeMeuse, who plans to use the money to help care for his elderly mother, is one of many people on the receiving end of such unexpected luck. Money may be out there looking for you this year, too: You just have to know where to find it.

Follow the (Missing) Money

Whether from a deceased relative who left an unclear will or a long-forgotten 401(k) account, a lot of money is owed to Americans out there: Some $33 billion in total unclaimed property and cash, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.

Because state legislatures have become increasingly vigilant about returning this limbo money to its rightful owners, many of those folks are in for a bright new year of unexpected windfalls. It happens so often with life insurance policies that the National Conference of Insurance Legislators created the Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits Act to require intensified beneficiary-location efforts. According to the American Bar Association, at least three insurers -- MetLife (MET), Prudential Financial (PRU) and the John Hancock segment of Manulife Financial (MFC) -- have been spurred to seek out beneficiaries by a task force headed by Florida's insurance commissioner and another effort in New York.

Unclaimed property can also take the form of inactive checking and savings accounts, abandoned safety deposit boxes, uncashed checks, and forgotten investments. This misplaced money is usually the result of simple negligence -- poor record keeping or accounts that people lost track of after a move.

"We have a very mobile society," said Carolyn Atkinson, deputy treasurer for Unclaimed Property at NAUPA. "People buy stock or they pass away, and their relatives didn't know what they owned. Our society's mobility is a two-edged sword. People issue a change of address and other things fall through the cracks."

It can happen to anyone. "Today" show host Matt Lauer, who started his broadcast career in West Virginia, learned in October that he had a small bank account in the state that he'd forgotten. Crooner Jason Mraz, too, was owed a check from the West Virginia treasurer for a concert he played there in 2010 for which he failed to recoup all the money due him; the state discovered his name last April on a list of people owed unclaimed property.

Some people have had money in the high six-figures find them. "They had bought stock 40 years ago, and now they're in their late retirement years," Atkinson said. "It's human nature -- we just don't always keep those things in mind."

How To Track Down Your Money

Start by going to to Missingmoney.com, a NAUPA-endorsed combined database of state treasuries and unclaimed property records. It's possible to search all states and provinces listed at once, or just a particular state where you or a relative lived.

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Some 40 states have data on Missingmoney.com, but if you suspect you're owed money in a state that hasn't shared its data, it's best to visit the website of that state's treasury or whichever governmental agency handles unclaimed property there. (In Indiana, for example, it's the Attorney General's Office.) A full list of contacts can be found here, or visit Unclaimed.org for more information.

I decided to try it myself in my native New Jersey. Though I personally didn't have any missing money, 11 of my relatives -- including my mother! -- are due funds in the state. Here's hoping that I can start off the new year with at least a small finder's fee from them.

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Unclaimed Money chart
Unclaimed Money chart