Finding Money, Unclaimed Property and Escheat Law

If a person dies without a will, that person’s estate will be reviewed in a probate court of law to determine who should be the rightful heirs to inherit the property. If the court determines that there are no surviving heirs or “close relatives” as defined by state law, the estate property may “escheat” – title passing and the property transferred to the state government as if the had been abandoned. Related to escheat laws are those which govern unclaimed property, the situation where money that cannot be distributed to a rightful owner by a person or company and which are required to be turned over to the state to be held and potentially distributed to an appropriate claimant.

State Escheat Laws

Each state has its own laws that govern escheat and some states laws are extremely confusing, with the state of New York having some of the most complex escheat laws. In New York, a close relative is defined as a cousin-once removed (the child of the decedent’s first-cousin) or any relative who has a closer relationship to the decedent, such as a brother and sister. Escheat rules and law also apply to personal property and real estate, with some jurisdictions allowing for the transfer of a bank account or other property to escheat to the state if it remains as unclaimed property.

Legal Aspects of Escheat

When property ownership is transferred to a state by means of escheat proceedings, the property will still be subject to liens and claims that have already been placed upon it before the prior owner died.  For example, if a neighbor of the deceased had easement rights to cross a property and the owner of that property dies without a will, even after the property passes to the state via escheat the neighbor would continue to enjoy that easement rights.

True Escheat

Traditionally, land reverted to the state when the owner died without heirs and no will. The same treatment also occurred when a non-citizen died without a will – their property would be immediately transferred to the state. No court proceedings were required. This automatic reversion of land without court proceedings was known as “true escheat.”  However, current laws now dictate that certain escheat proceedings take place before the property is transferred to the state. This applies to anyone who dies without a will and has no apparent heirs, whether they are a citizen or non-citizen.

Unclaimed Property

Every state has enacted unclaimed property laws which declare that money, property, and other assets are said to be “abandoned” after a period of three to five years of inactivity by the owner. After this period of time passes, landlords, banks, utilities, hospitals, brokerage firms, mutual funds, insurance companies, and other organizations are required to try to return the money or property to their rightful owners. If they are not successful in their efforts, they are required to turn over the property to the state’s abandoned property or unclaimed property office. At this point, the state may make additional efforts or list the current owner’s name in a database of unclaimed property where the owner or relatives of the owner can search and file a claim for such property.

How is the Property Lost?

There are many reasons for money or property being left behind by their rightful owners. In many cases, they are unaware that they were entitled to receive a distribution. Examples include:

  • Moving and forgetting to retrieve a security deposit
  • A security deposit, refund, dividends or other amount being sent to you were sent to the wrong address or you failed to provide a forwarding address after moving
  • Money may have been left in a security deposit box for an extended time
  • A relative may have died and it has taken many years for a probate court to settle an estate
  • A person may simply have forgotten to retrieve money owed

What Property is Considered to be Unclaimed Property?

  • Court Deposits
  • Customer Bank Deposits, Overpayments, Credit Balances and Refunds
  • Dormant Savings and Checking Accounts and Certificates of Deposit at a Bank
  • Fully Paid Life Insurance Policies
  • Health and Accident Insurance Payments
  • HUD/FHA Refunds
  • Insurance Payments
  • Oil, Gas, Minerals and Other Royalty Payments
  • Probate Court Judgments
  • Property Undistributed in the Probate of an Estate
  • Safe Deposit Box Contents
  • Stock Certificates
  • Uncashed Money Orders, Cashiers Checks, Payroll Checks and Travelers Checks
  • Unused Gift Certificates
  • Uncashed Stock and Mutual Fund Dividends
  • Unclaimed Security Deposits
  • Utility Deposits
  • Uncashed Death Benefit Checks and Life Insurance Proceeds

How Do I Find and Collect Unclaimed Property and Money?

Below is a list of states and hyperlinks to a page which will allow you to search the state’s unclaimed property database. After searching, you can make a claim by following the instructions on the site. The unclaimed property office will ask for your name (as well as any former names), Social Security number, current and all previous addresses during the time when you lived in the state. They will also ask you whether you are the person listed or a relative who is entitled to make a claim. You will likely need the services of a notary public to notarize your signature on a claim form before submitting it to the state unclaimed property office. Even if you don’t find yourself listed in an unclaimed property database, it is good practice to conduct a search every three to five years to see whether your name has been entered into the database.

Search State Unclaimed Property Databases

The following is a list of state unclaimed property databases that you can search to determine whether you have unclaimed property and money that belongs to you.

Michael M Wechsler, Esq.

Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of TheLaw.com and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at Zedge.net and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.

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