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 property 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 as ordinary income.

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, but 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 property is officially designated by the state as abandoned or unclaimed, it undergoes a process known as escheatment, where the state assumes ownership of that property until the rightful owner files a claim.

Depending on the state, the office of the comptroller or state treasury 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 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 back 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 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.

Types of Unclaimed Property

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.

A dormant account that has had no activity for a long period of 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 dormant for a certain period of time, which varies by state.

New York State collected $700 million in revenue from unclaimed property in 2013. While this number is higher than average, the amount of revenue derived by states from misplaced accounts totals more than $62 billion nationwide. Data indicates 50% of unclaimed accounts hold less than $100, but there is no limit to account size.

In 2014, Texas returned more than $200 million to owners of previously unclaimed property, with an average claim amount of $1,000. Many claims are much higher, but not many are likely to match the $32.8 million a Connecticut resident claimed in 2012, proceeds from the sale of stock, according to a 2017 article by Press Connects.

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