Loss is part of life. Some of us lose in love. Some of us are famous for losing our car keys or a cell phone. And we all lose family and friends, eventually. Sometimes loss is funny (finding the car keys in the refrigerator) or heartbreaking.
But a lost life insurance policy or money missing from a dormant bank or brokerage account can be maddening, even tragic, if you or a family member deserves the cash.
Billions of Dollars are Unclaimed
There’s a decent chance that you’re entitled to the proceeds of an unclaimed insurance policy or other long-forgotten assets that belonged to your parents or a close family member.
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One out of every 600 people are the beneficiaries of unclaimed life insurance policies, and they’re due nearly $1 billion, based on a Consumer Reports survey. The average unclaimed benefit is $2,000, but some recipients have wound up with as much as $300,000, according to CNBC.com.
And states are currently holding $41.7 billion in unclaimed property from abandoned bank accounts, safe deposit box contents, stocks, uncashed dividend or payroll checks, bonds, mutual funds and utility security deposits, says the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. The accounts have had no activity or contact with their owners for a year or more.
One Explanation: Boomer Parents' Money Habits
Partly, that money is lying around because parents of the boomers handled their finances differently than most people do today.
"Stocks used to be issued in physical certificates, so it was easy to lose them or forget where they were," says Elle Kaplan, chief executive and founding partner of Lexion Capital Management in New York City. "People who grew up during the Great Depression often felt safer by keeping small amounts of money in many places and never carefully documented or shared where all of those places are."
Where to Find Unclaimed Property
Here’s how to find out if you’re due any money and how to get it:
To track down a life insurance policy, start with your state insurance department. It may have a policy locator service program that can help. Go to the website of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners to get contact information. You'll want to work through the state where the policy was bought. That's the state that counts, not where the insurer was located or where the policyholder died.
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Also, the MIB Group, a not-for-profit corporation composed of life and health insurers, has a Policy Locator database of more than 190 million records that helps people track down life insurance applications processed since 1996. You’ll pay $75 per search.
"The most obvious type of life insurance policy that would garner a return for an adult child is a permanent life, paid-up policy that will pay out with proof of the person’s death," says Buckley Anne Kuhn Fricker, an eldercare attorney and certified geriatric care manager in Washington, D.C.
For unclaimed money and other missing property, your best bet is to start at the website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), Unclaimed.org, a nonprofit associated with the National Association of State Treasurers and the Council of State Governments.
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This site is the motherlode for information about unclaimed property held by the states, including bank accounts, safe deposit box contents, stocks, uncashed dividend or payroll checks, bonds, mutual funds and utility security deposits. The abandoned accounts have had no activity or contact with their owners for a year or more.
The site is pretty easy site to navigate. You just click on its map and go to each state your loved one lived in to see if anything shows up. (You might as well check every state you've ever lived in for your own unclaimed property, while you’re at it.) You may find yourself taken to MissingMoney.com, a free site endorsed by NAUPA.
Be sure to check out NAUPA's "Other Sources for Unclaimed Property" tab, which has links to sites of the IRS (there may be an undelivered refund check), the National Credit Union Administration and the Veterans Administration.
If you want to look for unredeemed savings bonds or Treasuries, go to the Treasury Hunt area of the U.S. Treasury Department’s TreasuryDirect site. It isn't easy to navigate, though, and you may have to fill out forms with information that you might need to dig up, like the date of the bonds’ purchase and the deceased’s Social Security number.
To hunt down unclaimed corporate pension benefits, try the website of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). It has a search engine that lets you search by the person’s last name, as well as the company name and state. If you ultimately find there is an uncollected pension, contact the PBGC by calling the agency’s toll-free number, (800) 326-LOST, or emailing email@example.com.
Bringing in a Pro to Help You
If you think or know there's a significant amount of money out there … somewhere … you might want to hire a pro to unearth it, like an attorney specializing in unclaimed property or a private investigator. This can be especially smart if a loved one lived abroad.
"We just had a client whose father had a stroke while living in Asia," says Tom Burnett, a spokesman for Wymoo International, a worldwide detective agency headquartered in Jacksonville, Fla. "Because he can no longer communicate, no one knew where the bank accounts or properties are."
Wymoo ultimately uncovered the assets. “Without an asset search, that money would have never been found or claimed," Burnett says.
But employing a professional won’t be cheap. You can expect to pay at least several hundred dollars, possibly much more. Some investigators charge flat fees upfront, some get paid by the hour, some keep a percentage of the money they collect, perhaps 20 percent or so.
A Warning About Locator Companies
Be cautious, however, of signing up with a locator company, the type of firm that goes out looking for account owners and charges them a fee just to tell them about money it discovered.
A recent New York Times article by Paul Sullivan says this industry isn’t well regulated and some locator companies use high-pressure sales pitches. If you decide to use a locator company, Sullivan says it’s important to negotiate the fee.
You’d probably be better off conducting your own search before agreeing to pay someone to do it for you. As the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators observes on its site, some abandoned accounts have very little money in them. The last thing you want to do is spend $1,000 on a pro’s search only to learn your unclaimed windfall will be 12 cents.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous media outlets including Next Avenue, Reuters and U.S. News & World Report. He is the author of Washed Away: How the Great Flood of 1913, America's Most Widespread Natural Disaster, Terrorized a Nation and Changed It Forever and C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race, which just came out in paperback.