(MONEY Magazine) – Did you forget to reclaim the utility deposit from the first apartment you ever rented? Or perhaps your dearly departed mother left behind a savings account that she forgot to declare in her will. As it happens, an astounding one in 10 Americans is entitled to share in as much as $30 billion of unclaimed assets–such as abandoned checking accounts, unredeemed gift certificates and stock dividends–now gathering dust in state treasuries.

In addition, another $1 trillion is lying unclaimed in dormant state, federal and private retirement accounts and in group life insurance policies, according to David Folsom, the author of Assets Unknown: How to Find Money You Didn’t Know You Had ($24.95; 800-286-5669). That’s up from $300 billion in 1980, he estimates.

Before an asset becomes “unclaimed,” a bank, brokerage or retailer typically must hold it for three to five years after the date of the last contact with the customer. During that time, the institution must try to get in touch with the rightful owner. If the bank is unsuccessful, the money then gets turned over to the beneficiary’s last known state of residence–or, if that’s a mystery, to the state where the business that holds the money is incorporated. And that’s where the property remains until the true owner (or heir) claims it.

Here’s how to get back what is rightfully yours:

Call the unclaimed-property division (usually part of the state comptroller or treasurer’s office) or the Department of Revenue of each state you or deceased relatives lived in. Some state offices will search their databases for up to three names at a time over the phone. Others require you to send a written request. For addresses of all unclaimed property offices nationwide, write to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators at P.O. Box 1272, Jefferson City, Mo. 65102, or visit its Website ( And don’t forget to check any relevant state retirement systems, unions and social clubs for neglected pensions or insurance benefits.

Don’t hire a search firm, though. Companies such as Found Money International in Ontario, Canada and Knowledge in Motion in Coral Gables, Fla., which promise “free online searches” of state lists, actually pack charges–anywhere from $10 to 50% of the amount recovered–for services the states provide for free.

–Kelly D. Smith


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