How many times a week do you get an email about funds you can claim? It may be the surviving spouse of a third-world dictator who needs help moving her fortune, or a cancer patient who wants you to distribute her millions to charity, or a bank official trying to find a beneficiary for a deceased depositor. They offer you an appropriate 25% to 50% for the trouble of opening an account in your name to receive the funds. To get millions, all you have to do is pay a few thousand in transfer, tax or documentation fees. These offers are about as legitimate as a $10 papal blessing.
Guess what? There really are government funds you can claim.
Every state has an escheats department. When a bank loses contact with a depositor, or when a government check goes uncashed, those funds go to the state treasurer to be held until claimed by the rightful owner. The sum is usually small, but not always.
A woman called me because she had discovered that the Michigan treasury was holding approximately $135,000.00 belonging to her deceased aunt. A probate estate was opened and it was then discovered that there were more assets, such as savings bonds, and substantial assets that had belonged to uncles who had passed away in 1977 and 1986. When the three probate estates were settled, the beneficiaries together received over $335,000.00.
There are scammers who will claim to have discovered escheated property belonging to you. The scammers are generally easy to identify. First, if they call you on your phone or send you an email, they are not legitimate. No federal, state or local government calls or emails depositors or taxpayers to tell them they have money coming. No banks or other companies that have your money notify you by a phone call, nor, generally by email. They send a letter through the United States Postal Service. If you receive an unexpected email from a financial institution you do business with, do not click on any link. Go to the official website for the institution to see if they sent you an email.
Second, if they charge a fee up front they are not legitimate. There are legitimate companies that survey escheated property websites, court records and other sources for unclaimed property and benefits due heirs who could not be located. They send letters to prospective owners and beneficiaries offering to reveal the property for a share of the proceeds ranging from a quarter to one half. Legitimate heir-search firms do not charge a fee up front. They receive a share of the property when it is collected.
Many unsuspecting heirs and owners are willing to give up a share of property they did not know they own or are due. One half or three quarters of something you did not know you had coming may be better than nothing. However, there are other cost-free alternatives. Before signing away a share of your money, do some investigating on your own.
The federal government – yes, that government, the one that never does anything for us – has a web page with information on how to find unclaimed property, including IRS refunds and lost savings bonds. There is also the free website of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers.
Their website includes links to the unclaimed property bureaus of all U.S. states and territories and some Canadian provinces. There is also a nationwide search option. Check all states where you and your relatives have lived.
If digging in state unclaimed-property web sites does not yield pay dirt, try shaking your family tree. If an uncle or aunt died without a spouse or surviving issue, you or your parent might be an heir.
In the end, it might make sense to give up a share of property you did not know you had. However, it is fun to try to find it on your own and you might find other assets in the process.
John B. Payne, Attorney
Garrison LawHouse, PC
Dearborn, Michigan 313.563.4900
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 800.220.7200
©2014 John B. Payne, Attorney