Before his mother died in 2018 at the age of 84, Thomas G. Plante used some of his time on frequent visits to her home in Rhode Island to help get her estate in order.
Early on, he found a life insurance policy that a relative had bought for her in 1933, when she was born. Because his mother had always lived in Rhode Island, Mr. Plante searched the state’s unclaimed property website for other assets.
“I knew that if there was any money, that’s where it would be,” he said. “Once you start looking, you find — wow! — she had a bank account I didn’t know about.” He also found that she owned a few shares of stock in AT&T, SBC Communications and Brighthouse Life Insurance, and had a number of uncashed dividend checks.
The total value of her financial assets was modest, a little more than $10,000, but Mr. Plante, 59, said it was enough to give her a proper funeral, which was important to his mother, who was Catholic.
Mr. Plante’s mother was one of many people for whom government agencies hold tens of billions of dollars’ worth of bank accounts, insurance policies, stocks, bonds, jewelry and other unclaimed assets. The owners of those assets have died, moved without leaving a new address or simply lost track of their property.
No government agency tracks the value of all unclaimed assets throughout the country, but independent estimates, including for matured Treasury savings bonds, run as high as $80 billion. And the total has been growing faster than states can find owners or heirs.
In 2015, the most recent year for which complete statistics are available, state agencies returned $3.235 billion to the rightful owners, but the agencies received $7.763 billion in new assets. Gift cards are a fairly recent source of revenue in some states, which claim the value on those cards when they aren’t redeemed by the recipient. (In other states, the value on the card goes back to whoever issued it.)
States and federal agencies publicize their efforts to deliver unclaimed assets to the correct party, but it can be challenging for heirs to establish ownership after the death of the named owner, whether it is a parent, a partner, a sibling or a spouse. Careful record-keeping by people with assets and their families, as well as improved access to government records, can make it easier for survivors to find their property and claim it.
Technology has made it easier for people to discover and recover forgotten wealth, but there are still hurdles. For one thing, there is no central database for all unclaimed assets in every state, which means people might have to look in multiple places if they’re trying to track down or discover assets.
The National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, an industry group affiliated with the National Association of State Treasurers, has collected unclaimed asset listings from 41 states on the website MissingMoney.com. However, the site does not yet include data from several states with large inventories, including California ($9.3 billion in unclaimed assets) and Pennsylvania ($3.5 billion).
Those states’ websites must be searched separately, along with the websites of a number of federal agencies: the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Credit Union Association, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Railroad Retirement Board and the Treasury Department, which is holding $25.5 billion in matured savings bonds.
Posting these assets on searchable websites “seems to be encouraging more people” to look for them, said Burton Hollifield, a professor of financial economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
But government agencies could return more assets to individuals by being more aggressive in their marketing efforts, said Darrin Wilson, an assistant professor of public administration at Northern Kentucky University. He wrote an academic paper with Derek Slagle at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, about how states manage unclaimed property.
“When a department had a dedicated marketing staff, there was a statistically significant increase in the amount of money distributed,” Prof. Wilson said.
Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, has proposed a different approach to speed up the return of about $25 billion to the owners of matured savings bonds. In August, he introduced a bill in Congress that would authorize the Treasury’s Bureau of the Public Debt to effectively deputize states to act on its behalf, actively seeking the owners of those unredeemed savings bonds.
The sheer volume of unclaimed assets, and the public’s inexperience in claiming them, has produced a new service industry: asset locators, who will hunt down unclaimed property for a percentage of what they find. The amount varies by state; Wisconsin caps asset locators’ fees at 20 percent, while Tennessee and Vermont limit them to 10 percent and Washington to 5 percent. New York’s cap is 15 percent of the recovered assets.
Locators may be able to find assets that survivors would be likely to overlook, but state officials encourage heirs to try searching government records before hiring someone. In any case, experts say consumers should avoid paying locators money upfront or signing contracts without reading them carefully or consulting a lawyer.