States grab unclaimed cash to help patch budgets
When Americans lose track of money — in neglected bank accounts, paychecks they forgot to cash and elsewhere — state governments are increasingly aggressive in taking control of the cash.
Now, with those efforts swelling state coffers by more than $40 billion and lawmakers using some of it to patch budget holes, skirmishes are breaking out between states and companies with their own interest in holding on to the unclaimed property.
Companies accuse states of overreaching. State officials counter the businesses are more concerned with keeping the assets themselves. But critics say rightful owners too often get short shrift.
“The analogy is to finding somebody’s lost wallet. In Minnesota, anyway, we give people their wallets back. It’s just what we do here. But it’s not what the state is doing,” said Joe Atkins, a state representative from outside St. Paul who last year introduced a bill calling for increased funding to track down property owners.
While other states, too, have increased efforts to reunite owners with their property, many have changed laws to let them take control of more unclaimed property more quickly.
State lost-and-found programs have been growing rapidly for more than a decade. California alone has $28.5 million on its unclaimed property list.
States stepped up pursuit of unclaimed property in the late 1990s, after restructuring by insurance companies exposed those firms’ inability to locate many policy holders. Many states have hired auditing firms to scrutinize the books of insurers, retailers and others, paying them multimillion-dollar fees for unclaimed property they brought in.
Most consumers on unclaimed property lists don’t even realize they’re entitled to missing money. It could be an inheritance they weren’t aware of or mutual funds entrusted to a broker with a mistaken address. Most are owed less than $100.
In all, state governments have $41.7 billion in unclaimed property on their books, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators.
Minnesota used to send letters directly to state residents telling them when the state had their money. But lawmakers eliminated that provision in 2005, while ditching the requirement to publish the names of property owners in newspapers.
Minnesota is among states that set up booths at state fairs to inform people of the missing money, efforts that have helped boost its return rate to about 45 percent of what it takes in.
Michael Rothman, Minnesota’s commerce commissioner, said he wants legislators to double or triple funding to hire finders who will search for people and to step up advertising and outreach.
“It’s great to have a goal, but if you don’t give the resources to do it, we can’t achieve it,” Rothman said.
For those unaware the state has claimed their property, “it’s a stealth tax,” said Ferdinand Hogroian of the Council on State Taxation, which represents big companies in pushing for uniformity in unclaimed property laws.
Consumers’ right to claim missing money never expires, even as legislators spend a portion of the funds. On average, states’ net of unclaimed property amounts to just a small part of their budgets — about half a percent as of 2011, according to NAUPA.
But states vary. Delaware has turned unclaimed property into its third largest source of revenue. Last year, it brought in $514 million, accounting for more than 13 percent of the budget. That pursuit of that revenue — often via audits delving back decades — has angered many companies.
Some states are trying to find more claimants.
Kentucky Treasurer Todd Hollenbach visited all 120 counties, recruiting volunteers to comb through the state’s database.
Among the recent beneficiaries was Fred Meyer, a retired engineer from Louisville who lost track of Apple Inc. stock years ago when it was valued at only $2 per share. The stock eventually was reported as unclaimed property and sold by the state in 2012. A few weeks ago Hollenbach called Meyer and said he’d be getting a check for $461,000.
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