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unclaimed money

Unclaimed money can come in the form of inactive financial accounts, unclaimed retirement assets and tax refunds, lost insurance policy benefits and more. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) states that about $2 billion in unclaimed property is transferred back to owners each year. There are many places you can look for unclaimed property and funds. This article details some of the places you should look for an unexpected payday. If you need help understanding the tax implication of claiming these funds or help determine how best to invest them, consider getting hands-on guidance from a financial advisor.

What Is Unclaimed Money?

Unclaimed money generally refers to financial accounts that have been inactive or those witch which you’ve lost contact for a year or more. Unclaimed property laws require these firms to turn over these unclaimed assets eventually.

So without even knowing it, you may have some cash sitting around waiting for you. Below are some common examples of unclaimed money:

  • Old bank and savings accounts
  • Certificates of deposit (CD)
  • Stocks, bonds, mutual funds and dividends
  • Trust funds
  • Uncashed checks and wages
  • Unclaimed tax returns
  • Insurance policies
  • Retirement plans
  • Financial accounts with your name as a beneficiary

So what happens to these assets if you don’t take them? State laws require financial institutions and companies to transfer unclaimed money to the proper state authority within a certain time frame after it has been deemed unclaimed. That agency then attempts to find you and return your missing money.

Of course, you don’t have to wait for Uncle Sam or other entities to find you. There are several legitimate resources you can use to track down your unclaimed money directly from the screen you’re looking at right now. Below, we’ll give you some examples.

Where Can I Find Unclaimed Money?

The best place to start searching is MissingMoney.com. Most states and provinces responsible for tracking and returning unclaimed property endorse and work with this site. It supports a database where you can search for your missing money by state. So be sure to run a search for every state you’ve lived in.

You can also visit the website for the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). This organization represents the state treasury departments and agencies that hold onto unclaimed property. Both websites provide search engines, interactive maps and additional information about unclaimed money.

But sometimes, unclaimed property may not yet be in the hands of the state. In these cases, you’d have to go straight to the source. So let’s refresh your memory about some of the cash you may have forgotten about and where to look.

Unclaimed Money from The IRS and State Tax Departments

Uncle Sam may owe you a tax refund. In fact, the IRS takes back thousands of uncashed federal tax refunds each year. In some cases, the check never made it to the taxpayer because he or she moved and didn’t update the new address with the IRS.

And while it may not be the most fun thing to do with your spare time, you can contact the IRS directly to find out if you have any unclaimed tax refunds.

In addition, you can also file taxes for previous years if the IRS owes you a refund. However, you have up to three years to retrieve unclaimed tax refunds before they become the property of the U.S. Treasury. So get your money as soon as possible before it goes back into the government’s hands.

The states that you’ve lived in may owe you a tax refund as well. The NAUPA database can also help you track down this unclaimed money. So reach out to tax department in the states you have resided in.

Unclaimed Money in Retirement Plans

You’d think it’s impossible to forget about an asset as important as your retirement plan, especially one holding several thousand dollars. But it happens to people’s 401(k) plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs and more.

Maybe you’ve jumped around from plenty of jobs and forgot about an old 401(k) with a small balance that is now quite large. Or your employer rolled it over to an IRA with another financial institution and you forgot all about it. You may even be the beneficiary of an inherited IRA or 401(k) and not even know it.

In those cases, you’ll want to claim your plan as soon as possible.

Remember, financial institutions that hold retirement plan assets are required to turn unclaimed money to state officials. In most cases, the state government liquidates these plans, taking them out of their tax-sheltered status. That may leave you open to hefty taxes and IRS penalties when you try to get them back.

You can use the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits to look up missing accounts.

Unclaimed Money at Old Banks

If you’ve had an old account at a bank that had been permanently closed, your unclaimed money might be insured if the bank was a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

But even small banks meet that designation. The FDIC covers deposits up to $250,000 per person, per institution and per account category. Deposit accounts include checking and savings accounts, money market accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs).

Investments such as stocks and bonds aren’t covered by the FDIC. Individual retirement accounts (IRAs) aren’t covered either. However, the FDIC would cover a deposit account within an IRA. Some people invest their IRAs entirely in deposit accounts such as in an IRA CD. In this case, the FDIC covers it.

If you think you have some unclaimed money from closed banks, visit closed banks.fdic.gov. Just make sure you have your old checking number ready.

Unclaimed Money at the National Credit Union Administration

The National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) insures up to $250,000 per individual depositor. This organization manages the National Credit Union Share Insurance Fund (NCUSIF). It’s backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government as is the FDIC Deposit Insurance Fund.

Unclaimed Money at the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

If your pension plan shut down or got taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), this organization may owe you some or all of it. The PBGC runs a database that you can search to see if you have unclaimed pension plan money.

You can look for unclaimed pensions, insured plans and trusted plans.

Unclaimed Money at the Treasury Department

unclaimed money

While securities are not FDIC insured, you may have unclaimed bond money sitting around. In fact, the Treasury Department holds records of billions of dollars in unredeemed savings bonds that don’t collect interest any more. You can cash in now if you have one in your name.

So if you think you have unclaimed bond money, fill out Fiscal Service Form 1048 for more information. Unfortunately, the Treasury no longer runs the database for unclaimed bonds.

Unclaimed Life Insurance Benefits

Something as crucial as life insurance payouts can’t and shouldn’t go missing. But they do. You may have had one with an old company that demutualized. In this case, that firm may owe you cash or other assets.

A loved one may have passed without even telling you that there’s a life insurance policy with your name on it.

If you want to search for missing life insurance money, you can start at demutualizing-claims.com.

Unclaimed Money at The Veterans Administration

Even after all you’ve sacrificed for your country, the department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may still owe you unclaimed veterans insurance funds. If you think you have unclaimed money at the VA, you can run through the Unclaimed Funds database at the VA’s official website.

Unclaimed Money at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

Several first-time homebuyers take advantage of the many federal programs offering low-interest mortgages to those who qualify. These include Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans and those sponsored by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

In such cases, the HUD may owe you a refund on part of your insurance premiums or even a share of the earnings. You can search the database at the HUD website to see if you have unclaimed benefits.

Unclaimed Money From The Claims Conference

Since 1951, the The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany has striven to “provide a measure of justice for Jewish Holocaust victims, and to provide them with the best possible care.”

The conference works with Germany’s government to restore property that victims lost under Nazi Germany. It also works to collect payments. If you wish to seek assistance in this capacity, you can contact the Claims Conference directly by visiting claimscon.org.

Unclaimed Money Scams: How to Avoid 

You always have free access to databases like the one at MissingMoney.com. A state agency that locates you typically returns your property free of charge or for a small handling fee. However, some businesses offer to search for your unclaimed money for a fee. Some legitimate firms find your missing property and offer to return it in exchange for a fee that’s usually a percentage of your returned property’s value. In some cases, financial institutions hire these firms to locate you before they have to transfer your unclaimed money to state governments.

Some of these firms operate totally legally, while others run complete scams. The point is you can always find your missing money for free. You never have to pay someone else to do it for you.

What Happens to Unclaimed Money?

NAUPA states: “For decades, it has been recognized as the appropriate policy for unclaimed funds to be used for the public good, until such time as is recovered by the rightful owner.” So the government may use unclaimed money to cover its own projects. But you still have every right to get your money back. In many cases, you can claim it into perpetuity.

However, you won’t always be able to get your assets back in the same form. For instance, the government may auction off unclaimed contents in a safe deposit box and return the earnings to you. It can also treat stocks and other securities the same way.

How to Prevent Property From Getting Lost

Keep track of all your financials. The government essentially requires companies to turn your assets into missing money if they lose contact with you. So stay up-to-date on all your bank, investment and retirement accounts. Check the balance of each at least once every year. And keep the financial institution that holds your retirement funds updated with major life changes like marriage or divorce, as this could affect beneficiary status. In fact, you should keep every place you have money updated with your contact info.

And be sure to record account numbers, passwords and all other information you’d need to access your financials.

The Takeaway

Unclaimed money

A large sum of your unclaimed money may be resting in the government’s hand without your knowledge. Sometimes, the government will find you and give it back. But you can always track it down first. Start by searching the MissingMoney.com database, which is connected to the government agencies holding unclaimed property. Also check with the IRS for missing tax refunds. And contact previous employers, banks and other financial institutions for money you may not have cashed or held onto.

Tips on Retrieving Unclaimed Money

  • Unclaimed money is everywhere, but it’s concentrated more heavily in certain places than others. Check out our study on the top states for unclaimed property. We also published one on the top counties for unclaimed property.
  • If you don’t want to do all the dirty work yourself, a financial advisor can help you unearth virtually all your unclaimed money. Use our financial advisor matching tool. It would link you with up to three financial advisors based on your preferences. You can then review their areas of expertise before deciding to work with one.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/asadykov, ©iStock.com/NoDerog, ©iStock.com/Deagreez

Javier Simon, CEPF® Javier Simon is a banking, investing and retirement expert for SmartAsset. The personal finance writer's work has been featured in Investopedia, PLANADVISER and iGrad. Javier is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing. He has a degree in journalism from SUNY Plattsburgh. Javier is passionate about helping others beyond their personal finances. He has volunteered and raised funds for charities including Fight Cancer Together, Children's Miracle Network Hospitals and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
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