Opinion

Unclaimed Property: The True Story

Some days it seems that our two political parties cannot agree on anything. But as state treasurers we often work together to solve problems and fight on behalf of our citizens. While some critics might cynically assert that state unclaimed property laws are a money grab, we have found, instead, that unclaimed property programs are remarkably successful, bipartisan programs that protect our residents’ hard-earned money. 

What is unclaimed property? Sometimes called abandoned property, unclaimed property refers to property or accounts within financial institutions or companies in which there has been no activity for three or more years. When that happens, the company is required to try and contact the owner. If they do not make contact, the unclaimed property is turned over to the state. Common examples include unpaid life insurance benefits, forgotten bank accounts, and unused rebate cards.

Collectively, this is more than nickels and dimes. Last year, 44 states reported returning $3.14 billion to rightful owners, with an average paid claim of more than $1,700. 

Every single day, Republican and Democratic state treasurers across America use a combination of technology and public outreach to reunite people with their money. Every state has a searchable unclaimed property website, and 40 states participate in the joint MissingMoney.com website.

In Illinois, the Money Match program has returned nearly $14 million to more than 126,000 taxpayers by matching state data with information reported to the state treasurer.4 A simple check is mailed to the owners– no paperwork involved. We also use commercial databases to automatically validate the identity of people who claim their property online. More than 300,000 people in Illinois have had their online claim approved without any need for paperwork. Last year, Illinois announced that we had surpassed $1 billion returned since 2015.

In Utah, we have achieved a 19 percent average annual increase in returned properties for the past 10 years. We utilize high-tech claims processing technology and digital advertising to reach the greatest number of unclaimed property owners, while also implementing more personalized outreach and locating efforts targeting communities that might otherwise be missed, including rural counties, Native Americans and charities. Building upon our efforts to ensure our overall approach to unclaimed property outreach is balanced and equitable, we launched an initiative in 2020 to use census tract data to focus our efforts more surgically on some of our most economically depressed communities.

Trust in government is hard to come by these days. Every unclaimed property administrator in the nation has a story where an individual simply refuses to believe the program is real. 

Unfortunately, we also have stories about the corporate attorneys and consultants who are trying to convince judges, their clients and the public that unclaimed property programs should not be trusted. 

James Madison, our fourth president, might have said it best: “Government is instituted to protect property of every sort … this being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.” 

There is a reason every state in our country has unclaimed property laws. It is a principle that is older than our republic and so simple that we learn it in grade school: When you have something that belongs to someone else, you have to return it. 

 

David Damschen is a Republican and the elected treasurer of Utah and has returned more than $259 million in the 12 years that he has served as state treasurer and chief deputy state treasurer. 

Michael Frerichs is a Democrat and the elected treasurer of Illinois and has already returned more than $1 billion in the past five years and is working to return an additional $3.5 billion in unclaimed property. 

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