BY LORI JOHNSON
Even a losing bet can pay off, I’ve discovered.
I have long teased my dad, an attorney who specializes in wills, trusts and estates, about his fascination with unclaimed property. As he explained to me, that term describes items lost or abandoned by their rightful owners. They can range from stocks, bonds and insurance policies to unclaimed pension benefits, income tax refunds, jewelry, uncashed checks, safe deposit boxes and medical reimbursements. By law, states are required to safeguard this property until claimed by the owner.
Even though Dad regularly found property for his clients in Montana, I found the subject personally irrelevant. One day, though, he bet me that I had unclaimed property in one of the 50 states. He was right! Virginia had two potential claims for me that each exceeded $50.
Here are links for the Washington, D.C., area to get you started:
Beyond the state sites, this is another helpful site. It is a national database that lists unclaimed property for the majority of the states (but not, for example, California or Delaware). It’s less detailed than some individual state sites, but still a good cross-check.
Insurance company sites.
Thanks to the efforts of a multistate task force, several insurance companies agreed in 2012 to change their practices when a policyholder dies. First, after confirming a policyholder’s death through Social Security Administration records, a company searches for a beneficiary. If the company is unsuccessful, it turns the unclaimed funds over to the state unclaimed property office. As a result, although you might find a life insurance claim listed on one of the state sites, you can also check directly with the insurance company.
Here’s the MetLife link: https://www.metlife.com/policyfinder/.
In some cases, you may need to call the company’s toll-free number. You’ll have better luck if you have a policy number on hand—and, of course, can prove you’re the beneficiary.
Discovering that you have unclaimed property is more common than you might suppose.
To find yours, first think about where it might be. Foreign Service personnel are most likely to have unclaimed property in Virginia, Maryland or Washington, D.C., simply because we move in and out of the D.C. area frequently. But explore all possible options. For example, did you get a last-minute offer to join the Foreign Service, and move quickly from somewhere outside the Washington area to start training? Did you have a summer job in a state, but never lived there again?
Next, consider all types of claims. It’s unlikely you’ll end up with a major windfall, but you won’t know unless you check. In one recent case, the Louisiana Treasury Department paid out $2.3 million in inherited oil royalties to a state resident! (The state treasurer was quick to note that this was the largest payout ever made in Louisiana, and that the average payout is closer to $900.)
Similarly, news articles pop up occasionally about early purchasers of Apple stock who forgot about their investment, and are surprised to discover that their original purchase has skyrocketed in value.
But other less dramatic possibilities abound, including cases where a company initiated the individual’s stock purchase. In 2000, for example, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company converted into a for-profit public company. In doing so, it gave most of its insurance policyholders a choice: cash, or stock in the new company.
According to press reports, the company ended up issuing a total of 500 million shares of stock to nine million of its policyholders, which made MetLife the most widely held stock in the United States at the time.
Nearly two decades later, not everyone who checked the stock option box remembers doing so. My mom, for example, was delighted to discover that she owned $800 in MetLife stock, thanks to a small life insurance contract my grandpa had taken out for her that was converted to stock.
MetLife isn’t alone. Other insurance companies have also converted into for-profit public companies in the past couple of decades. The list includes Prudential, John Hancock, Principal, Equitable and Mutual of New York.
States are required to search for unclaimed property owners, and as a result have created unclaimed property websites. (They also take out ads in major local newspapers.) There is no charge to make a claim using these official sites, which are usually managed by the state treasurer’s office. Try the unclaimed property website for every state in which you have lived, as well as those of your close relatives.
Naturally, authorities will require documentation to verify your claim, usually via a form they provide. Helpful documents proving you lived at a given address include copies of bills, pay stubs or a W-2 statement. You should also provide the date range when you lived at the address, and any other information that could help the state determine you are the proper owner of the unclaimed property. For inherited property, you will need legal documents to prove your ownership.
In my search, I went to Virginia’s Unclaimed Property website, and entered my full name. To help narrow the search, the site asks for any names you have previously used, as well as the last seven digits of your Social Security number, although that is optional. The site also asks where you have lived, and offers up some street addresses. (Other states may ask you for more or less information.)
When I recognized one street name and clicked on the box, the site listed two potential claims under my name, each valued at more than $50.
I’m still not sure what my Virginia unclaimed property was. The office didn’t tell me even after I submitted proof of residence for the first claim. But it did send me a check for close to $200.
I think it was probably a deposit I had made to start a utility service many years ago. When I closed the account and moved out of Virginia, I forgot about the original deposit, and didn’t provide a forwarding address. As a result, the company had no way of contacting me.
Keep in mind that the state may decide that the proof provided is insufficient, so do a thorough search of your records to find anything that can corroborate your claim. My other Virginia property is still listed on the site, because I lacked sufficient proof to claim it.
Best of luck with your search!