Money Quest can lead to possible bounty of rewards

September 14, 2009
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My quadruplets are now 7 years old and have become fans of the television show “Deal or No Deal.” Watching this and other game shows has actually been beneficial in their appreciation and understanding of numbers and money. The big pay-off is appealing as they see the contestants going for “gold.”

The quest to find “gold” has inspired many to play the lottery or bingo or head to a casino. I am actually writing this month’s column because my quest (and millions of others of individuals) was hampered by not winning the Mega Millions lottery jackpot.

I think everyone has the dream of “hitting it big.” Whether it is winning big at a casino, winning the lottery, or perhaps finding some long-lost treasure, there is the common element of hoping that one day your ship will come in.

Unfortunately, as many statisticians will tell you, there is likely a better chance of getting struck by lightning than winning a large lottery jackpot. However, one way you might hit a small jackpot is finding unclaimed property that has been turned over by businesses and governments to the state treasury for safekeeping.

A trip to the Michigan Department of Treasury’s Web site (www.michigan.gov/treasury) may yield some rewards without putting any dollars at risk. Michigan has adopted the Uniform Unclaimed Property Tax Act, and as a result, the Michigan state treasurer is the custodian of any property turned over to it for the benefit of the actual legal owner of such property.

As the frequently asked questions on the Web site indicate, the state treasurer protects unclaimed property and returns it to the rightful owners or their heirs. The current Michigan law also centralizes the search for lost property, including forgotten bank accounts.

Property is turned over to the state treasurer after certain events occur, such as where there has been no owner-generated activity for a specific amount of time (usually five years) and attempts to contact the owner have failed. If the contact attempts are unsuccessful, the money is turned over to the state treasurer’s office where the owner or the owner’s heirs may claim it.

The process of turning over unclaimed property to the government is hundreds of years old. The concept is commonly known as “escheats.” Escheats or the reversion of property has existed since the days of the English feudal law when land reverted back to the lord of the fee if there were no heirs capable of inheriting under the original grant of the interest in the property. The word “escheats” derives its origin from the Old French “eschete,” which means to devolve or fall to. The term came to England during the Norman times and was adapted in Middle English as “escheat.” In modern times, unclaimed property in England reverted to the crown, and in the United States it reverts to the state. The individual states administer their escheat or unclaimed property laws. 

Michigan has entitled its search site for unclaimed property “Michigan’s Money Quest.” Also on the Michigan Web site are links to other databases for other states’ unclaimed property and links to forms for any claims by legal owners or heirs to claim the unclaimed property found by searching the Michigan Money Quest Web site.

The search tool is easy to use. As a routine every six or 12 months, I conduct a search using not only my name, but names of deceased relatives including aunts, uncles or grandparents. I also search certain business names and tax-exempt organizations with which I have some association or connection. I also search the names of friends to see if they have something buried in the archives of the state treasury department.

I can report that my searches have produced some actual Money Quest hits. In some cases, it may be a utility refund or insurance refund or rebate. This happens in many cases where someone has made job or housing moves so that the utility company, insurance company or other business sending a refund or rebate check cannot locate an owner. A name change after a marriage can also be a factor in a check or other piece of property going unclaimed. 

In my own situation, I located some assets owned by my grandparents, which they must have lost track of along the way. My family members made a claim with the Michigan state treasurer using the forms available on the Web site (as legal heirs to those funds), and family members received the proceeds of the unclaimed property. In another situation, searching the names of some friends identified insurance refunds that were in the custody of the state treasurer. They couldn’t believe there was some cash hidden out in cyberspace with their name on it.

In 2008, I did a search of the name of a distant relative about two or three years after her death and located three items of unclaimed property, which I turned over to her family members so they could pursue a claim to obtain the property. I also am aware of other situations where tax refunds and bank accounts were discovered that had been long forgotten.

Based on those real life successes, I continue to regularly check out the Money Quest site and other states’ Web sites that have similar search capabilities to locate some treasure trove for relatives and friends. Sometimes the treasure is $100; other times it has been multiples of that amount. You just don’t know until you do the “mining” and locate the opportunity.

Next time you are doing some Internet surfing, spend a few minutes at the Money Quest site or similar sites for other states and see if you can uncover some hidden treasure. It may not be as exciting as hitting it big at a blackjack table or winning a lottery, but it may provide some excitement. You won’t need to use a lifeline to stay in the game and you won’t be asked: “Deal or no deal?”

Once you locate the potential unclaimed property, you need to go through the filing process for a claim to find out what the potential bounty is (refund, rebate, bank account, insurance policy, etc.). It may take some time to gather the necessary documentation that the state requires, and then you must have the patience to wait for the actual check to arrive in your mailbox. However, the effort and the journey may have its own rewards.

William F. Roth is a tax partner with BDO Seidman. The views and opinions expressed above are those of the author and not necessarily those of BDO Seidman LLP.

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