Call it Vermont’s version of lost and found.
The state treasurer is trying to find the owners of $80 million in unclaimed assets. Over the years, the amount of unclaimed assets turned over to the state on an annual basis has grown from $3.5 million in 2002 to $10.4 million last year, raising the total to $80 million.
Treasurer Beth Pearce said the state has done a good job of making companies that hold those assets aware of the unclaimed property law.
In turn, that’s allowed the state “to get more money out the door” to the rightful owners, she said.
Last year, Pearce’s office returned nearly $5.2 million to 15,941 individuals. In 2002, that number was $1.8 million.
“My goal is to keep moving that percentage (of returned assets) up and that more and more people get their assets,” she said.
Over the last 10 years, the state has returned on average 55 percent of unclaimed assets, up from 40 percent prior to that, Pearce said.
She said what’s helped is the number of databases available today. “We’re able to use social media a little bit more and to use more electronic ways of reaching individuals,” Pearce said.
According to the Treasurer’s Office, there are 420,000 individual properties waiting to be claimed. Asset values range from less than a dollar to $684,098.
State law requires financial institutions, employers, utilities and other entities to turn over unclaimed assets, including uncashed payroll checks, bank accounts, insurance payouts and utility deposits.
Pearce said unclaimed security deposits on apartment rentals should be turned over to the state as well.
She said Vermont also works with other states to return assets when someone has moved.
As an example, Pearce said a college student working out of state for the summer failed to cash their last paycheck. Because of the reciprocal agreement, Massachusetts turned the check over to Vermont, which in turn “was able to reunite the individual with his last paycheck,” she said.
According to Pearce, the first unclaimed property law in the country was established around 1954. She said Vermont adopted its own law shortly thereafter.
“To me, this is about consumer protection,” Pearce said. “The trustee(s) of those dollars do not get to keep them. They’re turned over to the state to create a centralized database to try to reach out to individuals.”
There is no statute of limitations on unclaimed assets. That means the owner or heir can always claim their assets.
Vermonters are urged to check online (MissingMoney.Vermont.gov) to see if they have any unclaimed assets. For assets under $200, individuals can print out a claim form and mail it to the Treasurer’s Office, which will verify the person’s address. Assets of more than $200 require additional verification.
The average claim is $330. The largest was $2.5 million, which was paid out to a number of relatives of an individual who had passed away, Pearce said.
A major source of unclaimed assets is life insurance. Several years ago, Vermont and a number of other states partnered to audit insurance companies’ policies. Pearce said the audit found that in many cases the insured had passed away with the beneficiary unaware that money was left to them.
“The insurance companies worked with us cooperatively to get those dollars out,” she said.
Nationwide, Pearce said, in the neighborhood of $7.5 billion in life insurance was returned either to individuals or to the states for safekeeping until the beneficiary could be found.
Under Vermont law, insurance companies are now required to review the Social Security death master file or similar databases to check whether an insured has died, Pearce said. She said companies are then required “to take proactive steps to find the individual, rather than wait for the beneficiary to make a claim.”
Pearce offered some advice so assets don’t wind up with the state as unclaimed property. She said Vermonters should leave their financial information with a spouse or trusted individual. She also highly recommends having a will with a detailed disposition of assets.
While it might appear obvious, Pearce urged people to “cash all your checks, dividends, wages and insurance settlements without delay.”
Vermonters can search the state’s unclaimed property database by visiting MissingMoney.Vermont.gov or by calling 800-642-3191.