State governments, aided by corporate middlemen, are collecting billions of dollars a year from Americans by enforcing obscure laws to seize money from forgotten bank accounts and other so-called unclaimed property.
All states have unclaimed-property laws. The idea behind them is to return dormant assets - bank deposits, stock, uncashed payroll checks, valuables in safe-deposit boxes - to their owners. The laws require banks and brokerages to hand over the assets to states. Most states then make some effort to locate owners and return the property.
But states from Massachusetts to California have turned their programs into big money-makers, and routinely dip into unclaimed assets to cover expenses. States have broadened laws to cover unredeemed gift cards and uncashed corporate checks to employees and suppliers. They've required businesses to turn over assets more quickly, and curtailed efforts to locate owners. And they've strengthened enforcement by hiring private auditors to examine corporate books in search of "lost" property. The auditors' reward: 10 percent to 15 percent of proceeds.
California is currently holding more than $5-billion in unclaimed property, nominally owned by more than 8-million individuals and companies. Among the names appearing on the state's list of owners of seized assets: Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin, actress Angelina Jolie and baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays.
"Somewhere along the line, a good idea got lost," says John Coalson, an Atlanta attorney who represents companies undergoing state unclaimed-property assessments. "What was intended to return property to its rightful owner has instead become a way for states to increase revenue without increasing taxes."
The 50 states collectively held roughly $35-billion in unclaimed property as of June 2006, according to the most recent data from the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators and from the state of Delaware. States collected about $5.1-billion in unclaimed property in 2006, up from $3.6-billion in 2003, the data indicate. On average, states identify owners and return about one-third of this property.
"Our mission is to return these assets back to the people," said Tara Klimek, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Financial Services. She said efforts include direct mail, media and community outreach, including televised phone banks and auctions of safe deposit box contents. "We will be at the state fair all next week."
Most types of property have to be turned over to the state after five years. Last fiscal year, Florida took in $271.1-million and paid out $171.4-million, but there are still 6.5-million outstanding accounts worth $1.7-billion. Owners can claim their money for free at any time; until they do, the money is used to fund education. Search for unclaimed property online at www.fltreasurehunt.org or call toll-free 1-888-258-2253.
States regard property as "unclaimed" if the owner hasn't had contact with the custodian of an asset for a specified period of time. In the case of bank deposits, depending on the state, that means three to five years without deposits, withdrawals or any other customer contact. For stock, it's three to seven years without cashing dividend checks, voting proxies or otherwise contacting the issuer or brokerage.
Delaware, the legal home to many big companies, is an aggressive collector of such assets. Delaware's director of revenue, Patrick Carter, says the state returns less than 5 percent of the unclaimed property, in part because it's difficult to link corporate credit balances with individual owners.
California officials stopped notifying owners whose property had been seized or listing their names in newspapers. Last June, a judge temporarily halted the program, ruling the state wasn't following its rules for seizing and returning the property.
After the ruling, California lawmakers instituted changes intended to limit seizures and return more property to owners; the program is back in operation.
Not every state views unclaimed property as a revenue generator. West Virginia says it gave back more assets than it collected in 2005. Missouri, Iowa and Kansas set up booths at county fairs to advertise their programs and identify owners. Oregon and Colorado hold unclaimed property in funds with the principal untouched, using only the interest.
"If you don't own it, it's not revenue," says Cynthia Wickham, Oregon's unclaimed-property administrator. "We're just the custodian."
Times staff writer Helen Huntley contributed to this report.
Unclaimed property in Florida
Of the unclaimed property assets Florida accumulates, it returns about one-third.
|Fiscal year||Received||Paid out|
|Since inception in 1961||$2.7B||$1B|