According to basic property law principles, unclaimed or abandoned property can be defined as funds and/or assets that have not been used or activated for a long period of time (usually around three years). Although there is a law known as the Revised Uniform Unclaimed Property Act (“RUUPA”), only a handful of states have adopted some version of the RUUPA.
As of March 2021, these states include:
- Utah; and
In contrast, the majority of states have enacted their own unique set of unclaimed property laws. Thus, each state has a property law that will dictate when such funds or assets may be deemed to be unclaimed property and which will probably differ from the provisions of other states. However, there may be some terms that may overlap across some or all of the states.
Generally speaking, there are two main types of unclaimed property: tangible and intangible property. The first kind, tangible unclaimed property, refers to physical property or property that can be touched like the contents of a safe deposit box. On the other hand, intangible unclaimed property includes property that cannot be physically held, such as bank account balances, stock shares, and lifetime annuity payments.
In other words, most cases of unclaimed property include some form of unclaimed money. So, for example, if you are the owner of a bank account that carries a balance (i.e., contains money) and you do nothing to that account for the period of time that is specified by state property laws, then that money may be considered as a type of unclaimed property.
Some activities that can help prevent a person’s funds or assets from turning into unclaimed property include:
- Checking bank account balances;
- Depositing new funds in an account;
- Making cash withdrawals from an account;
- Communicating with the service provider about an issue with an account either through verbal or written statements; and/or
- Doing any other action that would reasonably prove that an account owner is aware that the property in the account exists.
Who Is a Holder?
When discussing unclaimed property issues, a “holder” generally refers to the individual or entity who is currently in possession of the unclaimed property. In most cases, this usually means a public or private organization, such as:
- A bank;
- An insurance company;
- A business or corporation;
- A government agency; and/or
- In some cases, a merchant.
How Long Are Unclaimed Property and Assets Held?
As mentioned, each state has its own requirements for how long a property will be held until it is considered to be unclaimed property. For those states adhering to RUUPA rules, this is usually around three years.
After this period has passed, the holder will have a duty to identify the unclaimed property and to submit a report to the necessary state agency. Once the unclaimed property is given to the state, it will be held in a perpetual state trust fund until the rightful owner of the property can be found or one of the owner’s heirs claims ownership over the property.
How Do Holders Know When to Report Unclaimed Property?
As discussed above, each state has its own requirements for reporting unclaimed property items. Thus, while every state will be unique in their reporting requirements, there are some general procedures that may be the same across the board.
First, as the property is nearing the end of the period established by state law, the holder of the unclaimed property has a legal obligation to identify the property and report it as unclaimed to the state if the owner has not engaged in any activity that indicates to the holder that they know the property exists.
Second, the holder must also make a good-faith effort to reach the property owner before they hand it over to the state for preservation. The holder can do this by either calling, emailing, or sending other forms of correspondence to the property owner.
Third, and finally, if the holder is not able to reach the property owner, then they must submit an unclaimed property report in accordance with their state’s requirements. A state treasurer or controller may then follow-up with the property owner. If the state is also unable to reach them, then it will be logged in the state database for the rightful property owner to find.
How Do I Find an Unclaimed Property in My Name?
Individuals who wish to search for unclaimed property by name should visit the website dedicated to unclaimed property programs in their state. In general, most states have a treasurer or other similar official who will attempt to reach out to the owner of the unclaimed property. If the owner is never contacted about the property or if they wish to be proactive about reclaiming it, then they may use one of the following methods:
- National missing money database: The owner can visit the missing money website and search for their name or unclaimed property. This service is usually free of charge and is available for use in most states.
- State public databases: The state website regarding unclaimed property programs may offer the option of cross-checking state public databases for the property and rightful owners.
- Official government databases: If a property owner uses a national or state website to search for unclaimed property by name and an actual match is discovered, then the owner will be permitted to reclaim the property for free.
- Unclaimed property events: Finally, many states create outreach events, such as those held during local festivals, at state fairs, and/or in large shopping malls where property owners will be allowed to seek out their unclaimed property (or at least further information for how to go about reclaiming it).
How Can I Recover Unclaimed Property?
For the most part, the procedural requirements to claim an unclaimed property will typically vary by state. Thus, each state usually has a set of instructions to follow and specific forms for the owner of the unclaimed property to fill out.
However, there are certain items that will generally be required of all owners attempting to reclaim unclaimed property. Such items will normally include:
- Proof of identity (e.g., a passport, birth certificate, or valid driver license);
- A brief description of the property and the nature of the ownership; and
- Any documents that would help establish that the individual is the true owner of the unclaimed property in question.
In addition, by the time a property owner reaches this part of the retrieval process, they should have already received communications from their state’s treasurer or comptroller. This person is the special financial officer in charge of managing funds or assets related to unclaimed properties. For instance, if the unclaimed property is money, these state officers have a duty to hold and make reasonable efforts to contact the rightful owner.
Should I Consult an Attorney for My Unclaimed Property Issues?
The process for retrieving unclaimed property can often be complicated and stressful. It involves following many specific steps and complying with various state laws. Thus, if you are having trouble recovering unclaimed property or are experiencing other issues related to unclaimed property, then you should strongly consider hiring a local property lawyer for further assistance.
A property lawyer who is trained to handle unclaimed property issues will be able to offer guidance and can help you navigate the resolution process. Some other benefits of hiring an attorney for unclaimed property issues may include:
- Having a qualified individual to represent your interests and protect your legal rights when faced with an unclaimed property issue;
- Being able to ask a knowledgeable individual questions about the law or about inquiries that pertain to your specific legal matter; and/or
- Having someone who not only knows which documents to collect to prove your ownership over the property in question, but is also someone who can help you gather the right evidence.
In addition, your lawyer can also help you prepare the necessary legal documents to file a claim to retrieve your unclaimed property and can make sure that you submit those documents to the proper holder. Lastly, if a dispute should arise over the unclaimed property, your lawyer will be able to provide legal representation in court as well.