How to find forgotten assets

Is there lost loot out there with your name on it? We'll tell you how to search.

Consumer Reports Money Adviser: August 2010

Do you look for your name in newspaper ads that list owners of unclaimed property? That's a start, but you've also got to broaden your search if you expect to find forgotten funds. Many types of lost assets, including pensions and U.S. Savings Bonds, aren't safeguarded by the state agencies that place those newspaper ads.

It's easier than ever to find forgotten property thanks to the increasing number of databases. In most cases, it makes sense to do the sleuthing yourself rather than pay a finder firm to do it for you. If you locate funds that are yours, the fiduciary that holds them will provide specific instructions on how to claim them. You'll need proof of your identity. If the property belonged to a deceased relative or friend, you'll also have to prove that you are the executor of the estate or the rightful heir.

Property held by states

State treasuries and other agencies hold unclaimed property worth about $32.8 billion. The types of assets typically include bank accounts, certificates of deposit, contents of safe-deposit boxes, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, dividend or payroll checks, refunds for goods or services, traveler's checks, insurance payments, annuities, trust distributions, unredeemed money orders or gift certificates, utility security deposits, escrow accounts, and mineral royalty payments.

Assets usually land in state treasuries and with other agencies that administer unclaimed property programs because state laws declare property abandoned after a period of inactivity, typically three to five years. During that time, banks and other holders of such property are required to try to contact the owners. If they're unsuccessful, they must turn the assets over to the state, which tries to find the owners, usually by advertising in newspapers. People can lose track of property unintentionally when they move or change their names after they marry or divorce. Sometimes an owner dies and his or her heirs fail to claim assets left to them because they don't know about the inheritance.

To search for these assets, go to www.missingmoney.com, which you can also reach by typing www.unclaimed.org and clicking on the MissingMoney.com link. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators endorses the site, which has records from at least 35 states and the District of Columbia and links to agencies in the other states.

Search all of the states you or your relative has ever lived in. Check periodically because the association refreshes the data continuously. And don't worry: States can't play finders keepers with your cash. There's no time limit for claiming your assets.

U.S. Treasury securities

Uncle Sam gets back 25,000 interest and principal payments on Treasury securities each year as undeliverable. Billions of dollars in matured savings bonds aren't cashed even though they no longer earn interest. You can use the Treasury Hunt search engine, at www.treasurydirect.gov/indiv/indiv.htm, to track down matured savings bonds or missed payments from securities. Click on "Search for Your Securities in Treasury Hunt." Simply type in your Social Security number to start.

The practice of putting Social Security numbers on savings bonds dates only to the mid-1970s. Consequently, the Treasury Hunt search engine can only identify bonds issued in 1974 or later. If you're looking for older bonds or those that are still drawing interest, go to treasurydirect.gov. Click on the "Forms" tab, then download 1048, which is used for lost, stolen, or destroyed savings bonds. Fill in as much information as you have, including the issue date of the missing bonds (or a range of possible dates), their face amount and serial numbers, and the names, addresses, and Social Security numbers of their owners. If you're the executor of an estate and searching for someone else's bonds, you'll have to provide documentation of your legal authority.

Accounts at failed banks, S&Ls, and credit union

If you haven't claimed insured deposits you had at a bank or savings and loan that went bust, search the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s website, at www2.fdic.gov/funds/index.asp.

When a credit union with federal deposit insurance fails, the National Credit Union Administration (NCUA) makes payments to the institution's members. If you think the organization might owe you money, check online at www.ncua.gov/resources/assetmgmtcenter/unclaimed.aspx.

Defined-benefit pensions

Searching for a traditional defined-benefit pension is relatively easy if you earned one from a plan that no longer exists. In that case, check for unclaimed benefits using the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s online search engine, at www.pbgc.gov. Click on "Pension Search Directory."

You'll have to do more legwork if you earned benefits from a pension plan that still exists. First track down your former employer, which may be difficult if the company has merged or gone out of business. For detailed search instructions, read "Finding a Lost Pension" at www.pbgc.gov/docs/finding_a_lost_pension.pdf.

Once you find your former employer, send a certified letter, return receipt requested, to the administrator of its pension plan or, if appropriate, to the insurance company that's paying out benefits. List the dates of your employment and ask if you qualify for benefits.

If you need help, you can contact the Department of Labor's Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA), which has regional and district offices for people having problems with their pensions. To find an office in your area, go to www.dol.gov/ebsa/ and click on "EBSA Regional Offices." In addition, some states have federally funded pension counseling projects. You can review a list of them in "Finding a Lost Pension." For other resources, check out the Pension Rights Center's PensionHelp America website, at www.pensionhelp.org.

401(k) plans

There are plenty of ways to lose a 401(k) or other defined-contribution retirement savings plan. If your account is worth more than $5,000, you can choose to leave it with your old employer when you change jobs. Your former employer or the firm that manages its 401(k) plan might lose track of you if you move and fail to let them know your new address.

If your account is worth less than $5,000 and you neglect to take it with you when you switch jobs, your former employer can transfer the money to a so-called default IRA that's invested in safe options like certificates of deposit or money market funds. Your cash may go into an interest-bearing, federally insured bank account or to your state's unclaimed property division if your account is worth $1,000 or less. You can also lose track of a 401(k) if you leave it with a former employer who goes bankrupt and abandons the plan.

To search for a lost plan, start at www.unclaimedretirementbenefits.com, a website where plan sponsors, administrators, and custodians register missing participants who have unclaimed retirement funds. The site accounts for more than $80 million in benefits, according to Spiro Preovolos, director of operations for PenChecks, the retirement plan distribution processing company that runs the database. All you need to supply is your Social Security number. If the search engine finds a match, you'll be asked to provide your current contact information so the employer can get in touch with you and make arrangements for you to get your money.

If you don't get lucky, contact your former employer and ask if you had a 401(k) account there. If you have difficulty finding your old company because it has merged or changed its name, consult the PBGC's booklet, "Finding a Lost Pension," described earlier in this report. To search for an abandoned plan, go to the Department of Labor's database, at www.askebsa.dol.gov/abandonedplansearch.

Life insurance policies

If you suspect that a deceased loved one had a life insurance policy, you can search for it on www.missingmoney.com. If you come up empty, check the decedent's address book for the names of insurance agents, as well as checkbooks and credit-card statements for records of premium payments. For more tips, go to the American Council of Life Insurers' website, at www.acli.com. Click on "Missing Policy Tips" under "Tools." To search for a group policy, call your loved one's last employer.

If you can't find evidence of an individual policy but still think that he or she had coverage, you can hire MIB Solutions to look for you. Go to www.mibsolutions.com, click on "Solutions," and then on "Policy Locator." MIB's database has more than 170 million records representing inquiries submitted on individual life insurance applications processed during the last 14 years. The cost is $75 per search.

Federal tax refunds

If you're still waiting for a tax refund, go to www.irs.gov and click on "Where's My Refund?" Type in your Social Security number, tax filing status, and the amount of the refund you were owed. You can see if the post office returned your refund to the IRS and update your mailing address if you're eligible. This service provides information on only the most current tax year, not on prior years' tax returns.

Should you hire a finder firm?

The answer is usually no, but it might make sense in some situations.

Finder firms generally find you. For instance, you might receive a postcard from one promising to tell you about lost assets that are yours if you'll pay a flat fee of, say, $14.95. If you send a check, you'll probably receive a letter telling you how to search for unclaimed property using some of the websites described in this article.

"If you have to pay money to get money, it's probably a scam," says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the college-financing websites FinAid.com and FastWeb.com. He also maintains a website about locating unclaimed property, at www.unclaimedproperty.info.

There are legitimate finder firms that get early access to information about assets that are on their way from banks and other institutions to state unclaimed property divisions. They'll send you a letter saying they have information about unclaimed property that is yours and will help you claim the funds for a fee equal to 30 to 40 percent of the value. If you agree, the firm will tell you which state's unclaimed property agency to contact. It's up to you to fill out the forms and provide any documentation necessary. Instead of hiring a finder firm, Kantrowitz advises waiting a year or so after receiving a finder notice, then going to www.missingmoney.com, where you'll probably find the funds in question.

If you don't have the patience to wait, Kantrowitz suggests negotiating a lower finder's fee, say 10 percent. If the unclaimed property is valuable, haggle for a reasonable flat fee. Moreover, if the unclaimed assets are worth more than a few thousand dollars, hire an attorney to draft a contract with the firm. Make sure it stipulates that you'll pay the fee after the check for your forgotten assets clears your bank.

This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.


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