Finding Missing Money is Easier Than Ever If You Know Where to Look
By Molly McCluskey
A short time after Mark Larsen's mother died, he received a letter from the state of Louisiana letting him know he had money owed to him from her estate.
This form of money owed, often unbeknownst to the recipient, is known as "unclaimed property," and can be anything, from forgotten bank accounts, utility deposits, overpayment at a doctor's office and more. Once it's held for a certain period, often a year, it's turned over to the state, which is then tasked with finding its rightful owner.
In Louisiana, like in the majority of U.S. states and territories, unclaimed property is managed by state treasurers. The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA), composed of state treasurers and others acting in that role for the state or territory, including the District of Columbia, has an estimated $30 billion in unclaimed funds across the country. In 2023, $5.4 billion of that money was returned to owners.
According to Patti Wilson, NAUPA president and the program's administrator for Washington state, there are many reasons money could be sitting unclaimed in a state's treasury.
"As far as small dollars people may just forget about it, or not realize they have money coming back to them like a utility deposit if they move," Wilson says. "If you don't know you're getting a refund check from an insurance company or a doctor's office, how do you know to go out there and go looking for it?"
In Louisiana, as in many states, the treasurer is an elected position. Larsen believes his letter came as part of a campaign in an election year designed to curry favor with voters. But people don't have to wait for an overzealous politician to let them know there's money owed to them.
Each state offers a free online search of their unclaimed property database, and there's no fee to claim funds that are owed. The NAUPA has created a website, www.missingmoney.com, that allows users to search most states' sites at once, and, if the states allow, to even file a claim directly.
Whether filing a claim online or via a traditional form as Larsen did, the process is simple, and straightforward.
"It was all surprisingly very painless," Larsen recalled years later. "I filled out a couple of forms, verified my identity and received the check."
With one in seven Americans owed unclaimed property, according to the NAUPA, there are many people like Larsen who don't know they have funds owed to them, and could be in for a pleasant surprise.
"We often hear from people, 'I don't have any missing money. I know where all my money is'," Wilson said. "We have a mobile population. If you've moved around or moved to a different state, checking the national database can't hurt.
"The other thing to keep in mind is, the states are getting new property every year. Even if you check today and you don't find your name, there's a chance you might find something six months from now or a year from now," she said. "We're still working hard getting the word out about unclaimed property, just educating people that we're not a scam, and we are trying to return this money to its rightful owners."
Upon learning that states continue to report unclaimed property on an ongoing basis, Larsen checked the national database and found many listings for his name.
"I guess I have some more homework to do," Larsen said.
Journalists interested in guiding their readers toward finding missing money should point them to their state’s treasury department or website, as well as the National Association of State Treasurers, which has online resources including debt management, unclaimed property information, and more.
National Unclaimed Property Day is celebrated on February 1. April is Financial Literacy Month.
National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) is the leading, trusted authority in unclaimed property; helping individuals claim their unclaimed property, and ensuring businesses comply with state laws for annual reporting.
Bureau of the Fiscal Service – Unclaimed Assets – Find additional information and resources concerning property that may be unclaimed that was originally issued by a federal agency.
Molly McCluskey is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, National Geographic and more. She has found more than $500 in unclaimed property since 2021. View her work and get in touch via mollyemccluskey.com. Finance 411 is a bi-monthly feature, presented by RTDNA and the National Endowment for Financial Education.