Unclaimed Property - How much is available and where does it come from?

The U.S. Federal and state governments combined currently hold more than $35 billion in unclaimed money and property. The good news is that some of it may be yours.

Every U.S. state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, British Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Alberta and Quebec, Canada all have unclaimed programs that work to actively locate the owners of unclaimed property and assets that have either been forgotten or left in the name of someone who is already deceased. For example, according to The National Unclaimed Property Database (NUPD), a Boston man recovered 1000 shares of stock valued at $4 million. Most do not have lost money or stock may quite as valuable, but totals add up in a hurry and could total anywhere from $100 to thousands.

Abandoned or unclaimed property actually refers to money held in accounts at financial institutions or companies that have seen no activity on the accounts for at least one year. Common types of unclaimed property include checking or savings accounts, dividend checks, stocks, refunds, trust distributions, unredeemed money orders or payroll checks, insurance payments, life insurance, annuities, overpayments, utility deposits, CD's, royalty payments or contents of safe deposit boxes.

Since many of the unclaimed property laws have changed since the 1950's, it has become one of the most significant and well-known consumer protection programs today. Claims by the owners and heirs of unclaimed property are easily made and approved through state government websites.

Most states, in the consumer's best interest, have enacted statues that protect the property until it reverts back to the original owner or rightful heirs. The law instructs the states to make a diligent effort in finding the rightful owners. The state governments provide the service free of charge, while there are also companies that offer to locate lost property for a fee.

Most state treasury offices administer programs that have regulated, effective methods by means of websites, public awareness, cross-checking public data systems, as well as national databases for consumers to conveniently check at will. It is smart to check these sites anytime you change addresses.

Companies are also required to record or send any lost money or accounts to the state after exhausting efforts to contact the rightful owners. Many times, utility deposits at different addresses in various states are refunded and eventually left in the state's deposit of unclaimed funds.

In 2012, banks and financial institutions have already turned over more than $61 million in assets to the Commerce Department. That is a $4.5 million increase over 2011. In Minnesota, $19 million in unclaimed money from bank accounts, insurance accounts, and other financial assets have been turned over to the state. That amount is a 13 percent increase over 2011 figures.

In 2011, Oklahoma received contents from 167 safe deposit boxes, turned over by banks. The rentals on the boxes had been expired for more than five years. If owners or heirs cannot be located, the law will eventually auction off items left inside. Many times, photographs, marriage licenses, mementos or death certificates are given to historical societies. Items with no historical or monetary value will be discarded or auctioned.

But mementos are not all that are found in safe deposit boxes. Oklahoma has also reported more than $350 million worth of unclaimed property, including stock certificates, jewelry and oil and gas royalty certificates.

If you think you have lost or forgotten money, or deceased relatives have left unclaimed property, check with the treasury or state government website in each state in which you or your relatives resided. You will have to provide certain information in order to prove ownership and it will take six to eight weeks before the state completes its investigation and releases the property.