Unclaimed Property – What? Where? How it impacts on estate planning and probate estate administration?
Did you know that there are billions of dollars in unclaimed property being held by the state and federal government? Regardless of how careful we are with our finances, it is possible for utility deposits, credit balances, unused gift certificates, banks accounts, and many more types of property or money to accidentally be forgotten or abandoned. I’ve forgotten about an old bank account before. I found it when searching Texas Unclaimed Property. I routinely search for unclaimed property as part of probate cases. Fortunately, it is often possible to locate this property and obtain it.
What Is Unclaimed Property?
During the course of our life, certain events commonly occur— we move, marry, divorce, or die—that result in property being unintentionally lost. For example, we move and change our address but forget to update it with a bank. We get married or divorced, and change our name. In the case of the death of a family member, we don’t have complete knowledge of the extent or location of our loved ones’ money and property. So, a business or other organization holding our money or property may no longer have our current contact information or be aware of someone’s passing.
After several years, if the property, which is usually intangible property such as bank accounts or other funds (but could also be the contents of safety deposit boxes), is not claimed by the owner (or if the owner has passed away, the owner’s beneficiaries or the administrator of the owner’s estate), the business or organization is required by law to report it and turn it over to the appropriate state agency (typically, in the state of the owner’s last known address). The state will then hold the property until the owner files a claim to obtain it.
How Can You Find It?
There are places to look for unclaimed property held not only by the state government, but also by the federal government.
- In Texas, search Claimittexas.org.
- The U.S. government identified other official sources.
- The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators provides the ability to perform searches for multiple states at a time (though some states have not provided the website with access to their data, it also provides links to the appropriate state agencies of every state) as well as to perform searches nationally and even internationally.
If you uncover property owned by you or a deceased relative, you will probably need to send documentation verifying your identity, for example, a copy of your driver’s license, your social security number, or proof of your current or previous address to begin the process of claiming the property.
Note: There are legitimate asset locators can help you find unclaimed property but may charge very high fees. Be wary of scams in which individuals contact victims using email, letters, or phone calls asserting that the victim is entitled to valuable unclaimed property in an effort to obtain a fee or personal information without any intention of helping them obtain it. It is important to check with your attorney before paying any fees or signing a contract with anyone purporting to be an asset locator.
How Should This Affect My Estate Planning?
An important part of estate planning is creating a comprehensive list or inventory of all of your money and property. Not only will this inventory enable you to consider who you would like to receive your money and property and how it should be distributed, but it will also help ensure that none of your accounts or property ends up as unclaimed property. You should review and update your inventory on a regular basis with your estate planning attorney and make sure that you provide copies of it to trusted individuals.
What If the Owner Is Deceased?
Because so many people have unclaimed property, it is always prudent for the personal representative of an estate to search for any unclaimed property which has been turned over to the state.
A person who has been qualified or appointed as the executor, administrator, or personal representative (we’ll refer to them all as the personal representative hereafter) by the probate court or an heir is authorized to file a claim for any money or property on behalf of the deceased owner’s estate. As in the case of an owner who is seeking to claim his or her own property, the personal representative or heir will typically need to provide the owner’s death certificate and a claim form, and additional documents such as:
- Letters Testamentary or Letters of Administration
- photo identification
- proof of the owner’s address if the property being claimed did not contain a social security number
- a copy of the court-ordered distribution of the deceased owner’s estate
- the owner’s will and/or trust agreement
Because it is essential to create an estate plan or update an existing one that considers all your property – to ensure it will be distributed to the family members and loved ones you choose in the way you wish – it’s important to periodically check for unclaimed property. In addition, if your loved one has passed away, the personal representative should look for unclaimed property.