5 Ways to Find and Recover Money You Didn’t Even Know Was Lost

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Updated on Friday, January 15, 2016

5 Ways to Find and Recover Money You Didn’t Even Know Was Lost

Did you know that in 2013, there was $58 billion worth of unclaimed cash and benefits in the United States? That figure may seem outrageous, especially if you track every dollar you earn or receive. You wouldn’t let any money of yours wander away unaccounted for, right?

Maybe, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of a few bucks here and there, forget about some sources of money with your name on it, or not be informed about how to claim your cash.

So what can you do about it? The good news is there are a number of ways to reclaim money with your name on it. It’s just a matter of knowing where to look.

1. Check with Uncle Sam First

The first place to look for lost money is with the IRS. You may have money with your name on it sitting at this agency for one of two reasons. Either your refund went unclaimed, or it was marked undeliverable.

Unclaimed refunds usually occur when you earn an income and have taxes withheld from your paychecks — but you didn’t make enough income throughout the year to file a return. You may be eligible for certain tax credits, or you can request a refund on the money that was initially withheld.

Refunds are sent to your last known address, so if your mailing address isn’t up-to-date with the IRS your check could miss you. This is what the IRS refers to as an undeliverable refund. You can update your information by visiting IRS.gov or calling the agency at 800-TAX-FORM.
Additionally, one way to preemptively “reclaim” your money when it comes to taxes is to change the withholding on your paychecks. By paying less in taxes throughout the year (in favor of owing come tax time each April), you’ll reduce the likelihood of any refunds you’re entitled to getting lost in the shuffle.

2. Search for Cash and Other Property by State

Search for any kind of unclaimed property at Unclaimed.org. This lists out assets left behind by state, and is a good place to start if you’re seeking lost or forgotten bank accounts, CDs, and certain types of uncashed checks.

Funds range from very small and potentially not worth the effort to reclaim, to serious amounts of cash that you don’t want to slip away. “I found $3.00 for my aunt. She was not impressed,” says John McCarthy, a CPA and founder of McCarthy Financial Planning. “I also found $300,000 for the company I worked for. Needless to say, the company was a little more excited than my aunt was!”

You can also search for other types of property like stocks, unredeemed money orders or gift certificates, insurance payments or refunds, utility security deposits, and more.

Joseph Hogue, CFA and blogger at Peer Finance 101, says that he used a state-specific site to search for unclaimed property in his family. Iowa’s state treasurer’s office runs the site Great Iowa Treasure Hunt, and Hogue used the resource to locate a variety of funds in his name and in his relatives’.

“Filling out the forms and getting the needed documentation turned out easier than I thought,” Hogue shares. “The website has downloadable forms to fill out and sign.” He says to file a claim, you’ll need to verify your address and provide a photo ID.

“I took the four forms and supporting docs to the Treasurer’s Office, but could have mailed them in,” says Hogue. “I got one check for the entire amount just three weeks later.”

You can try looking for state-specific resources by searching Google for “your state” + “unclaimed funds.” At the very least, you should find a government web page or two that lists out information about unclaimed property in your state. If you can’t find a search portal, use Unclaimed.org.

And if you’re looking for an old savings bond, there’s an entirely separate resource to help you track it down. Search for property on Treasury Hunt, which will let you know whether or not a savings bond has matured..

Finally, you may be able to find lost money via unclaimed insurance policies. Consumer Reports claimed that there’s at least $1 billion worth of unclaimed policy benefits out there, and that 1 in 600 people are eligible to claim money from those policies.

To get any money you may be entitled to, you should first use the above resources to look for unclaimed property. If that yields no results, you can contact the insurer who issued the life insurance policy. If the policy was held by a departed loved one, you should also seek out the documentation from their account.

3. Think Back to Past Employers

Another common source of unclaimed money? Old company benefits packages. It’s easy to forget about old retirement plans and accounts held with a previous employer after you leave for a new position with another company.

If you ever had a pension with a past employer, you can reach out to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. PBGC insures tens of thousands of different pension plans, and you can search for unclaimed pensions via their site.

While on the subject of old employers, think back and make sure you didn’t leave any other types of retirement accounts behind. If you opened a 401(k), make sure that you roll that account over to something you can continue to manage today.

And as a bonus tip, make sure you’re not losing money with your current employer! If you have the option to set up a 401(k) and contribute to receive a company match, do so. Company matches are money for you to claim, or like giving yourself an instant raise. Take advantage and don’t let that money go unclaimed or become forgotten!

4. An Ounce of Prevention…

While receiving money from an inheritance may be something that’s out of your control, you can encourage family members to ensure their assets are distributed according to their wishes by setting up an estate plan. It’s important you do this for yourself, too, for the assets in your name.

And no, an “estate” isn’t just for the super wealthy. Without an estate plan, regardless of how much money you have, everything must go through probate court. That’s a long – and public – process that can delay the distribution of funds or can lead to confusion about what money goes where.

This advice speaks more to preventing assets from going missing or unclaimed than to finding those monies once they’re gone. Setting up an estate plan can help avoid lost or forgotten funds in the first place by transferring money directly to heirs.

Doug Nordman, who pens the site The Military Guide, experienced this firsthand in attempting to search for accounts from both his father and grandfather. “Both of them suffered from dementia, eventually leaving their financial affairs in utter chaos,” he explains.

“Sites [to help locate unclaimed funds] are essential for ‘forensic accounting’ to figure out what’s been abandoned; anything from $40 refunds by the local electrical utility to $100,000 insurance policies which still have a cash value,” says Nordman. “It’s the only way to assure family, caregivers, conservators, and heirs that everything has been found.”

5. When to Hire Help

The above methods of finding unclaimed cash are fairly simple and anyone can utilize the resources listed. But is there ever a time when you should hire someone to help you track down lost or forgotten money that could be in your name?

Avoid working with “locator companies,” who charge a fee to do the kind of digging you can do on your own. And you should always guard against fraud or scammers. Be on your guard and only work with reputable companies that are known and trusted.

If you’re seeking a specific account or type of property, perhaps an inheritance from a loved one who passed away or an unclaimed insurance policy, it may be worth looking into an attorney who specializes in unclaimed property.

This should be a last resort, after you’ve explored other options and done some research and tracking on your own. Attorneys can cost hundreds of dollars per hour. Doing a search on unclaimed.org or making calls yourself may yield results with no more investment beyond your time and energy.