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UNCLAIMED ACCOUNTS ARE BURIED TREASURES

The state is holding more than $1-billion - including two accounts apparently belonging to the governor.

Anybody can wind up on Florida's missing-money list, even the governor.

Florida's Bureau of Unclaimed Property is holding more than $1-billion, waiting for the rightful owners to claim it. Included are two accounts that apparently belong to Gov. Charlie Crist - a car insurance premium refund and a utility refund. When I checked the list a few years ago, I found then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who had a couple of uncashed cashier's checks to his credit.

I'd say there's a lesson in this for the rest of us: If companies can't keep up with the governor's correct address, you know there's a chance they won't find us.

I recommend checking unclaimed property lists periodically for any state where you've lived. One way to remember would be to make checking the list part of an annual financial review when you do your income tax return. Companies, local governments, universities and civic organizations should be checking too.

You can find Florida's list at www.fltreasurehunt.org (or call toll-free 1-888-258-2253) and links to other states' lists at www.unclaimed.org.

I'm always amazed that there is so much unclaimed money. In the four-county Tampa Bay area alone, there are 667,979 unclaimed accounts holding more than $100-million. The money comes from a variety of sources, including dormant bank accounts, undelivered dividend and refund checks and abandoned safe deposit boxes.

It usually ends up with the state because the check came back to the issuer as undeliverable. Usually the problem is an incorrect or old address. The governor's insurance refund had his street address right, but listed a former apartment number. State Farm says the process is all handled by computers. Crist's office had no comment.

I've never found my own name on the unclaimed property list, but I have come across the names of many people I know. This year I even found my dad's name connected to an insurance payment sent to a long-ago address.

There's no deadline or charge for reclaiming your money, but you won't earn interest and the state school fund will use your money in the meantime. Once you submit documentation, the state can take up to 90 days to process your claim.

Question: I am a recent widow with $700,000 in cash to invest. I know brokerage firms push their products and I am thoroughly confused. What can you recommend?

Answer: First sit down with a fee-based financial planner to review your situation, taking into consideration your needs and risk tolerance.

Two good sources for referrals are the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors (http://napfa.org or toll-free 1-888-333-6659) and the Personal Financial Specialists within the American Institute of CPAs (http://pfp.aicpa.org or toll-free 1-888-999-9256).

Interview at least a couple of people to find one you are comfortable with, and ask for references.

I also recommend learning something about investments so you can take an informed role in making decisions for your account.

Helen Huntley writes about investing and markets for the Times. If you have a question about investments or personal finance, write hhuntley@sptimes.com or Helen Huntley, Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Read more questions and answers at http://blogs.tampabay.com/money

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