It's getting easier to track money that you might have forgotten about, or money a dead relative left, with you as heir.
A new Web site - MissingMoney.com - pools information from the unclaimed-property offices of 25 states and Washington, D.C. By the end of the summer, 40 states could be on board.
You can look yourself up, to see if any beautiful surprises await (women should look under both married and maiden names). You can also check friends' and relatives' names.
If you get a hit, the site won't tell you what you're owed, or where the money is. Only that you have a claim. You then have to prove who you are and that you're entitled.
Peter DeVries, president of the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (NAUPA) and head of Florida's unclaimed-property division, calls the Web site a "giant step forward."
Many states have had individual Web sites, but this is the first time they've all been brought together for an easy search.
MissingMoney.com opened in November. So far, it has generated 3 million searches and about 117,000 claims, averaging $300 each, says its president, Mike Meriton.
The states have been returning about $2 billion a year, DeVries says. MissingMoney.com could raise the number of claimants by as much as 20 percent.
If you're not on the Web, write to NAUPA at P.O. Box 7156, Bismark, N.D. 58507 for the free brochure, "Unclaimed Property Information." Include a stamped, self-addressed, business-size envelope. The brochure includes the addresses of all the state unclaimed-property offices. They'll do a search for you.
How do people mislay money? Let me count the ways. You move and don't leave a forwarding address. You forget to give your new address to every institution holding money due you. Sometimes you don't know that money is due. Sometimes people get dotty. Some people die without leaving good records.
The forgotten valuables include bank and brokerage accounts, Individual Retirement Accounts and other pension savings, paychecks, dividend checks, refunds from telephone and electric companies that people failed to collect when they moved, uncashed money orders and cashier's checks, unused gift certificates, contents of unclaimed safe-deposit boxes, and life insurance policies that the heirs never knew about - especially small ones.
By state law, banks and other private companies, including nonprofits, generally can't hold unclaimed funds for more than five years. They're supposed to turn them over the state's unclaimed-property office.
The states list the missing owners in newspaper ads and on Web sites. They might also try to find you through telephone directories, credit bureaus and motor vehicle records. Some states try harder than others.
Warning: Your money might be treated as unclaimed even when you know where it is.
Say you have an inactive bank account or mutual fund. No money is going in or coming out. If you move without giving the bank or fund your new address, and the mail is returned, the account eventually will be considered abandoned, and shipped to the state.
You can reclaim your property no matter how many years have passed (except in New Hampshire, which confiscates most assets after five years). When stocks, bonds, and mutual funds go to the state, they're usually sold after three years. If you make a claim, you'll get the proceeds.
States often pay interest on reclaimed interest-bearing accounts, such bank deposits, but not on other funds.
Unfortunately, businesses don't faithfully follow the unclaimed-property laws - especially smaller businesses. NAUPA believes that the states get only 10 percent of the money that people forget about. (If it's not in the state files, you'll never find it.)
When businesses do surrender unclaimed money, you can't be sure which state it went to. In theory, it goes to the state where you were living when the company lost track of you. But it might go to the state where the company is incorporated. You have to check both.
Unfortunately, the federal and most local governments don't surrender unclaimed money to NAUPA offices. Nor do they generally hunt for people to whom money is owed. You have to know that you're missing a payment and apply to the agency directly. (State governments, however, might list your name.)
The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. started a search site in July. The PBGC covers a portion of workers' pensions, if their company plan goes broke. It currently owes more than $23 million to about 10,500 former employees who can't be found. Check the list at www.pbgc.gov.