Tens of billions of dollars are just waiting to be claimed—and you could be the winner. That may sound like a come-on for a sweepstakes promotion, but it’s the reality of unclaimed assets hiding in the coffers of state and federal government agencies. To be a winner, you have to know where to look for the assets.

Where They Come From

The assets include retirement plan proceeds from former employers…security deposits released by long-ago landlords…bank and financial accounts sitting dormant for years…insurance policy proceeds…matured savings bonds…and much more.

“Escheatment” laws that cover unclaimed assets require that financial institutions and other businesses hand over assets to state governments if the proper owners cannot be located, and some federal agencies have unclaimed assets, too. These laws vary by state but are growing stricter as governments increasingly view unclaimed assets as a source of revenue. In many states, financial institutions are required to turn over money simply because they have had no contact with the account holder in as little as two or three years.

Generally, the assets can be reclaimed without time limits or penalties (although also without further interest payments once they become unclaimed assets).

Where and How to Search

Search state unclaimed-asset databases in every state where you have lived or worked. For most states, you can do this by entering your name and other basic info into the master search page on the website MissingMoney.com. Eleven states do not share their unclaimed asset data with that site, however—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington and Wyoming. For these states, click “states” on MissingMoney.com, then click the appropriate state on the map to go to its unclaimed-assets online database. Search states even if you haven’t lived or worked in them for decades. These sites and searches are free.

If you find a listing for money that seems to be owed to you, follow the ­directions to reclaim it. The process varies by state but usually requires filling out a form available on the state website.

Helpful: With these state sites—and with the other databases listed below—also search any former names you have used, such as maiden names…common misspellings of your name—Smith if your name is Smyth, for example…and your name flip-flopped, with first name last and last first if your last name is one that’s commonly used as a first name, such as Patrick or ­Thomas. Typos such as these are one reason why money might have failed to reach you and became lost in the first place.

Search the names of any businesses you owned over the years. And search the names of any now-­deceased ­relatives for whom you were an heir or estate executor. Claiming money that previously belonged to a deceased relative or to a now-closed business can be challenging. The state is likely to request extensive documentation to establish that you are the proper owner. If the state still does not accept that you are the proper recipient and the amount involved is worth the expense, it might be necessary to hire a probate attorney to help recover the money.

Search for missing retirement plan money if you might have forgotten to roll over a 401(k) from a long-ago employer or you worked for a company that had a traditional pension plan. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that guarantees traditional pension plans, maintains a searchable database of ­unclaimed traditional pension benefits  at Search.PBGC.gov.

Also check the National Registry of Unclaimed Retirement Benefits ­(UnclaimedRetirementBenefits.com), a free service offered by PenChecks, the largest processor of retirement plan benefits. It lists both unclaimed 401(k) assets and traditional pension assets. Widows and widowers should search for pension assets in their deceased spouse’s name as well.

If these searches come up empty but you’re concerned that you’ve lost track of retirement benefits from a particular past employer, additional options include contacting that former employer’s human resources department…and/or PensionHelp America (PensionHelp.org), which provides free assistance with pension problems and is run by the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.

Search for unpaid life insurance benefits. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners offers a free policy-locator service (https://EApps.naic.org/life-policy-locator) that could help you track down life insurance policies and annuity contracts of deceased relatives that name you as a beneficiary. This isn’t a searchable database—you’ll have to complete and submit an online form and then wait up to 90 days to see if any participating insurance companies find unclaimed benefits for you.

Search for unredeemed savings bonds. It’s very common for people to lose track of US savings bonds—these often are given as gifts to children, then forgotten before the bonds reach maturity. To track them down, complete Treasury Department Form 1048, Claim for Lost, Stolen, or Destroyed ­United States Savings Bonds (TreasuryDirect.gov/forms/sav1048.pdf). This form asks for details that most people don’t have, such as the missing bond’s issue date and serial number, but file anyway. Include as much detail as you can and leave the rest blank. The most important details to include are your name and Social Security number and—if the bond was a gift—the name and Social Security number of the gift giver.

Search for federal income tax refunds due to you. If you were owed a tax refund but didn’t file a return, the IRS might owe you money. The catch is that, unlike most unclaimed assets, this type has a deadline. You must file a return within three years of the date of the original deadline. ­Example: If you were due a refund in 2020 but didn’t file, you must file by May 17, 2024—three years after the original 2020 filing deadline of May 17, 2021.

You also might be owed money by the IRS if you filed a return but the refund was returned to the IRS as undeliverable or did not make it into your bank account as an electronic deposit. On IRS.gov/refunds, click “Check My Refund Status” to track a refund filed for during the current year (or final six months of the prior year) or call the IRS at 800-829-1954 to initiate a refund trace.

Search for money you’re owed from old FHA-insured mortgages. If you paid Federal Housing Administration insurance on a mortgage, there are two situations where the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) might have money for you…

  • You acquired a mortgage loan after September 1, 1983…paid an up-front FHA mortgage insurance premium at closing…and did not default on your mortgage payment. If this is true, you might be owed a refund on a portion of the FHA insurance premiums you paid.
  • Your loan originated before September 1, 1983…you made payments on that loan for more than seven years…and your FHA insurance terminated before ­November 5, 1990. If this is true, you might be eligible for a share of the earnings from the Mutual Mortgage Insurance Fund.

There’s an online search tool at https://ENTP.hud.gov/dsrs/refunds that can tell you if there’s FHA money due to you.

Beware Fees and Scams

Some people make a living tracking down other people’s unclaimed assets. They search online databases, contact people they find listed there and offer to reunite them with their money in ­exchange for a cut of the proceeds—from 10% to more than half. Some states, but not all, have laws limiting the amount these asset finders can charge.

Don’t agree to this. The person may be a scammer who is trying to get you to reveal personal information such as your Social Security number to steal your identity and/or who tries to convince you to pay an up-front fee and then disappears with your money.

And even if this lost-asset finder is not a scammer, he/she isn’t doing anything that you couldn’t do yourself in just a few minutes. If you receive a call or an e-mail along these lines, that’s a tip-off that you should check the databases for yourself. If you don’t find any assets under your name, wait a few months and try again—sometimes these professional finders pay fees to obtain advance access to new listings that haven’t yet found their way into the databases.