WASHINGTON — Somewhere out there in attic trunks, suitcases and shoe boxes is a lost treasure — as much as $16.7 billion worth of savings bonds purchased by patriotic families during World War II, but never cashed in.
They're still good, but buried in the past, alongside dusty crates of Benny Goodman records, Sunbeam Mixmasters and Philco radios, the detritus of the Greatest Generation.
The federal government began issuing hundreds of billions of dollars in savings bonds nearly 70 years ago to finance World War II.
But the bonds came with a catch: They wouldn't be paid off for 40 years, an unusually long time. As the decades passed after World War II, $16.7 billion worth of bond certificates were either forgotten or thrown out in the trash.
The elderly sometimes still bring in boxes of Wall Street stocks from the Roaring Twenties, says Jack Shuten, president of Coastline Financial Solutions in St. Petersburg, who specializes in retirement planning. But he has never seen a World War II bond. Their owners probably have forgotten them. And the federal government has never sent out a reminder.
And so all that treasure has remained unclaimed. But now, someone is stepping forward: the states.
A half-dozen state governments have filed a lawsuit against the federal government to get that money.
The Treasury has decided to fight back, seeking to keep the states' hands out of its pockets. Oral arguments are expected to begin in the coming weeks in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, where the lawsuit was originally filed.
The Treasury kept a list of the original addresses of the bondholders but never tried to contact them, according to court documents filed by the states. But the agency has set up a Web site, TreasuryDirect.gov, to help people figure out whether they or their relatives hold a bond.