Unclaimed Money: 5 Ways to Find Your Share of $41 Billion

sign advertising unclaimed lottery winnings
A sign encourages the winner of a Powerball jackpot to claim their $63 million prize | MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Image

Stop hunting for lost cash in your car or couch cushions. You could have hundreds or even thousands of dollars in unclaimed money waiting for you and not even know it.

States are sitting on $41.7 billion in unclaimed funds, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA). Abandoned bank accounts, uncashed payroll or refund checks, unclaimed insurance payments, dividends, and security deposits for utilities are among the sources of missing funds. The IRS has nearly $1 billion in unclaimed tax refunds from 2012 alone. Forgotten pensions, old 401(k)s, and lost savings bonds are other sources of missing money.

How do people lose track of billions of dollars? It’s easier than you might think. Bank accounts are forgotten, checks are returned as undeliverable when someone moves, paperwork gets lost, and companies go out of business and their retirement plans are turned over to third-party administrators. You could have even inherited money or be the beneficiary of an insurance policy and not realize it. But unclaimed funds aren’t necessarily gone forever.

Most frequently, lost money ends up in the hands of a state’s department of unclaimed property, where it sits until someone comes forward to claim it. In other cases, the federal government or another organization hangs onto it until the rightful owner appears. Only in rare cases, such as unclaimed lottery winnings or federal tax refunds, do you run the risk of forfeiting the money if you don’t act fast.

Tracking down your missing money requires a bit of leg work, but online databases make the process much easier than it used to be. Some companies will also help you find and claim missing assets, for a fee. You might even receive a letter from a such a company indicating they’ve located lost assets, which they’ll help you claim in exchange for a part of the funds. Use caution when dealing with these companies. At best, they want a share of money you could easily find and claim yourself, and at worst, they’re scam artists.

There’s no reason to pay someone else to find your missing money. Here are seven tips for tracking down the unclaimed funds belonging to you.

1. Start your search

man hold fan of $100 bills
Fan of $100 bills | Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Every state maintains a database of unclaimed assets and other property. You can search most of them at once by visiting Missing Money, a site run by NAUPA, an organization for state departments of unclaimed property.

Not every state is part of the Missing Money database. To search for lost money in California, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, Illinois, Wyoming, Arkansas, Georgia, South Carolina, New York, Connecticut, and Delaware, visit those state’s unclaimed property websites. When looking for lost funds, search in every state you’ve lived and under any other names you’ve used (such as a maiden name).

2. Track down lost tax refunds

The IRS has $950 million it’s trying to give away to more than 1 million people. The money belongs to those who didn’t file a tax return in 2012 but are still entitled to a refund. The median refund amount is $718, but taxpayers only have three years after the missed filing deadline to complete a return and get their money. Miss the window, and the cash become the property of the U.S. government. For 2012 returns, the deadline is April 18, 2016.

The unpaid refunds may be owed to people whose incomes were so low they weren’t required to file a return. Those people may have big checks waiting for them because of the earned income tax credit. Others forget to do their taxes, and the IRS won’t chase them down unless they owe the government money.

“We especially encourage students and others who didn’t earn much money to look into this situation because they may still be entitled to a refund,” IRS Commissioner John Koskinen said in a statement, adding that there’s no penalty for late filing if you’re owed a refund.

3. Get missing retirement money

retirement piggy bank
Retirement piggy bank | Source: iStock

As you switch jobs over your career, it’s easy to lose track of your retirement benefits. If you think you earned a pension with a former employer but haven’t claimed it, check out the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s database of unclaimed pensions.

Lost 401(k) money may be found by searching the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits. You can also contact your former employer (or the company’s successor, if the company has merged or been bought out) to find out what may have happened to your retirement benefits.

4. Hunt down lost Treasury bonds

Did you grandmother give you a savings bond for your birthday that’s since vanished? You can search for matured, uncashed bonds at the U.S. Treasury’s Treasury Hunt website. The site can help you find unredeemed Series E and Series EE bonds issued after 1974, as well as bonds the Treasury Department was unable to deliver. If you think you’ve lost a bond and can’t find it when searching online, you can also file a claim for lost or stolen bonds.

5. Other sources of lost money

If you had a mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration, you may be owed a refund. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a searchable database to help homeowners locate their money. The FDIC has unclaimed insurance payments for some customers of failed banks. The National Credit Union Administration has a similar list of unclaimed deposits. The Veterans Administration has unclaimed insurance funds for some servicemembers and their beneficiaries.

Numerous lottery prizes also go unclaimed every year. Depending on the game, you have 6 to 12 months to come forward with a winning ticket before forfeiting the cash. If you have tickets tucked away somewhere, double check to make sure you’re not actually a winner. Otherwise, you could miss out on a lot of money, like the winner of last summer’s $63 million Powerball jackpot who never stepped forward to claim the prize.

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