States return billions of dollars worth of unclaimed property every year. Unclaimed property generally consists of unclaimed money in financial and bank accounts that have sat dormant for more than a year. Find out how to check if you have any unclaimed property and how to claim it.

Key Takeaways

  • Unclaimed properties are those assets or funds where the rightful owner cannot be located or has left the account dormant for a prolonged period.
  • Typically unclaimed funds and property are handed over to the state the assets are located in after a dormancy period has passed.
  • States have established processes whereby legal owners of assets can reclaim unclaimed funds.
  • When claiming unclaimed funds that have risen in value, taxes may be assessed at the time.
  • If you claim property, it will be treated as ordinary income and taxed accordingly unless the property is related to a tax refund.

Reclaiming Property

The process for reclaiming unclaimed or escheated property varies by state, as the federal government does not have a central website for finding unclaimed property. Most state websites are similar in format and typically fairly simple to navigate. The office of the comptroller is usually the official agency tasked with managing the list of unclaimed property.

Funds associated with unclaimed property may be absorbed and used in state operating expenses. Still, unclaimed property funds are nearly universally kept track of as debt to the property owner on record. Queries for unclaimed property accounts can include criteria such as first and last name, business name, ZIP code, and city associated with the property.

Most, if not all, government agencies are prohibited from contacting owners of unclaimed funds/assets by phone. Because scammers are aware of this limitation, they may attempt to defraud the public.

Dormancy Period

Unclaimed property is essentially property that has gone unclaimed beyond the dormancy period. The dormancy period is the amount of time between when a financial institution reports an account or asset as unclaimed and when the government deems that account or asset to be abandoned.

For most states, the dormancy period is five years. When a property is officially designated by the state as abandoned or unclaimed, it undergoes a process known as escheatment. The state assumes ownership of that property until the rightful owner files a claim.

Depending on the state, the comptroller or state treasury office may make attempts to locate the rightful owner of the unclaimed property. Methods may include mailing notifications to the last listed address of residence or employment. Property can often go unclaimed when the owner fails to report a new mailing address, so that this method can be less successful. States may also subscribe to online contact databases that could have more up-to-date information.

Escheatment

After the dormancy period, dormant accounts become unclaimed property. States enacted escheatment statutes that govern the process of protecting unclaimed funds from reverting them to financial institutions.

Escheatment state laws require companies to transfer unclaimed property from dormant accounts to the state general fund, which takes over record-keeping and returning of lost or forgotten property to owners or their heirs if the owner has passed away.

Owners can gain back the unclaimed property by filing an application with their state at no cost or for a nominal handling fee. Because the state keeps custody of the unclaimed property in perpetuity, owners can claim their property at any time.

Unclaimed Property and Taxes

Types of unclaimed property include uncashed payroll checks, inactive stocks, court funds, dividends, checking and savings accounts, and estate proceeds. When property accounts go unclaimed, they are turned over to the state for reasons that may include the death of the account holder, a failure to register a forwarding address after changing residence, or simply forgetting about an account.

Unclaimed property is not taxed while it is filed as unclaimed; however, the property may be officially recognized as taxable income when it is reclaimed. Some unclaimed funds such as investments from a 401(k) or an IRA can be reclaimed tax-free.

A dormant account with no activity for a long time, other than posting interest, is also a potential case of unclaimed property. A statute of limitations usually does not apply to dormant accounts, meaning that funds can be claimed by the owner or beneficiary at any time. Financial institutions are required by state laws to transfer resources held at dormant accounts to the state's treasury after the accounts have been inactive for a certain period, which varies by state.

Example of Unclaimed Property

According to the Office of the New York State Comptroller, the state returns $1.5 million in unclaimed property to people who file claims. As of July 2021, the state has $17 billion in unclaimed property. In addition, every year, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has millions in unclaimed federal tax refunds. While there is no centralized database for unclaimed funds, you can visit USA.gov's unclaimed money from the government page and check the various links to sites that can help you find unclaimed money.