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AARP The Magazine

Does Your State Owe You Money?

Find out if some of the billions in unclaimed cash belongs to you

State-owed money

Are you among the lucky people to have unclaimed property (aka cash) coming your way? — Chris O'Riley

En español | There's about $42 billion in cash in state coffers waiting for the rightful owners to claim it. Could you be one of them? I was, and with just a bit of effort, I unexpectedly netted more than a thousand dollars. I'm not alone in landing such a windfall.

In 2011, in fact, 2.5 million claims were filed and $2.25 billion was returned to its rightful owners, an average of $892 per claim. Are you among the lucky people who have cash coming your way? Here's how to find out.

Start on the Web

Question No. 1 — "Do I have money coming to me?" — is pretty easy to answer. Each state has statutes that instruct companies and financial institutions to turn unclaimed funds over to the state, which is charged with locating the rightful owners.

The states have sanctioned two websites to facilitate the search. MissingMoney.com allows you to search the unclaimed-property records for 40 states at the same time. Unclaimed.org allows you to search states individually. One note: It's important to check out both sites. That's what I did, and it paid off after the second search.

Don't pay up front

If you do an Internet search for the two sites just mentioned, many others with similar names pop up. Many are legitimate businesses that charge a fee for their services. The state governments — and their websites — do not. If you have complicated claims, you may decide it's worth paying someone else to handle this for you.

Just ask in advance how much of your claim will be charged as commission (it's usually 10 to 20 percent). You should not be asked to pay up front or give a credit card number. Make sure the contract stipulates that if no money is found, you'll owe nothing.

If you are contacted about unclaimed property, especially by email or phone, be wary. "Call your state's unclaimed-property office," says Mary Pitman, author of The Little Book of Missing Money. Even if a company contacts you by letter, you don't have to work with the sender, Pitman says. You can follow up on your own.

Don't let it happen again

One way to make sure you don't lose assets in the future is to streamline your accounts. Consider using one bank for all your banking needs and one brokerage firm for all your investments. If you've been current on your bills, ask for utility deposits to be refunded now rather than waiting until you move, Pitman says.

Jean Chatzky, best-selling author, journalist and money editor at NBC's Today, is AARP's financial ambassador. With additional reporting by Arielle O'Shea

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