Are you owed money you don’t even know about? You might be, if your name is in an unclaimed property database. Each year, billions of dollars from forgotten security deposits, refunds, uncashed paychecks and even old bank accounts are reported to state agencies. And each year, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, an organization affiliated with state treasury departments, states return more than $3 billion to their rightful owners.
Just ask Maria Barlow, an attorney in Chicago. A few months ago, she was sitting at home when she decided to plug her name into the Illinois unclaimed property website. “I was surprised to see there was an entry,” she says. Fast forward a few weeks, and she had a check in hand for $47.80.
If you are wondering if you have unclaimed property, here’s how to find out.
Search online at state agencies
The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators’ website, Unclaimed.org, links to agencies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and other territories. With these sites, you can search unclaimed property databases for free. The organization also sponsors MissingMoney.com, which lets users search multiple states at once, though not every state participates.
To pull up the property database, you will likely be asked to enter a last name. You could also enter a first name, city or ZIP code to help narrow the search. From there, you may find entries detailing the owner’s last known address, property amount and the company that initially held the funds. Depending on the database, the state may provide the exact amount of the property, or give a range, such as “under $50” or “$50 or more.”
Barlow says her entry was from an old internet provider. The company owed her a refund because she moved and switched off service before her billing period ended. But it didn’t have the correct forwarding address, so it sent the money to the state. Barlow says she filed a claim online, and it was processed within two weeks. “Even in the pandemic, it didn’t take long to receive it,” she says.
Finding a small amount can still give you breathing room in your monthly budget or help pad your emergency fund. (Read more about emergency funds and why they’re important.)
Prove you are the rightful owner
Filing a claim may involve scanning and uploading identification, such as your driver’s license, and other documentation that you live (or lived) at the address on file. For example, you might be asked to upload a recent utility bill. For certain types of claims, such as those for money orders, you may need to mail documentation instead of uploading. (You can read more about money orders here.)
Heirs can follow a similar process for claiming property if the owner is deceased. Lorrie Walker, a financial advisor in Lakeland, Florida, advised a client earlier this year whose late husband had funds in old bank accounts. She says her client provided additional paperwork, including her husband’s death certificate, to claim the property.
Later, Walker checked the state treasury website for unclaimed property of her own. “Sure enough, there was money for a security deposit in an apartment I lived in 20 years ago,” Walker says. She filed a claim online and, a few weeks later, received a check for $125.
If the property is tied to an old address, don’t be discouraged. In Barlow’s claim, she explained that she no longer had documentation, and she still received her money, she says.
It is OK to be nosy
Data within unclaimed property databases is publicly available, so you can search on behalf of others. You can then alert them if they have lost funds, but it’s their responsibility to claim the funds and prove ownership.
Barlow says she entered the names of about 15 family and friends and found unclaimed funds for many. She says that since she alerted them to the cash, many were able to collect. “I may be nosy, but I found them money,” she says.
Pro tip: Make the most of your money
If you do find and receive funds, you can make this “found” money work for you by putting it in an account with a high interest rate. These accounts may earn 10 times more than the national average, so you can take the unexpected funds and grow them even more.
The smaller amounts may not make you rich, but they can still be worth searching for, Walker says. “At the end of the day, it is your money. So it’s better for you to have it than the state.”
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Margarette Burnette is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @Margarette.