State program brings owners and lost goods back together

Officials search for owners of unclaimed property worth
$2 million.
Monday, March 15, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:29 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dan Stookey, an owner of Cooper Travel Service Inc., has just received a nice surprise — $79 he didn’t even know about.

Stookey is one of more than 1.5 million Missourians who own property or are owed money but don’t realize it.

State Treasurer Nancy Farmer is using a number of strategies to identify these owners under the Unclaimed Property Division.

The program alerts residents who may be owners of property — cash, checks, stocks, dividends and safe deposit boxes —that they are unaware of or have forgotten. The total value of unclaimed property in Boone County is more than $300,000 this year.

Farmer said this year will set a record for the state.

“Last year we set a record of $14.6 million given back in various forms of property, but so far we have already reached $12.3 million.”

About 46,000 unaware Missourians were turned into satisfied new owners in the last fiscal year, which starts every July 1.

“We started this reallocation program in 1985, and since then there has been an increasing success, which peaks every year,” Farmer said.

The holders’ names are published in newspapers throughout the state, and postcards are sent to their last known addresses.

Stookey received a postcard about his $79, which came from a commission dated 1997, with a check payable by the state of Missouri.

“I have no idea how it stayed there for all this time,” Stookey said.

As for Boone County, Scott Harper of the state treasury said that during fiscal year 2003, the county received 35 percent more unclaimed property than it did during 2002. Since the inception of the program in 1985, the division has returned $1,332,469.47 to Boone County residents and still has more than $2 million remaining.

“It is a strong county return, and at the moment, we have a total of $88,897.03 in claims being processed for Boone County,” Harper said.

As of March 1, 34,836 items remain unclaimed in Boone County.

The State Treasurer’s Office has an online version of the unclaimed property database, where citizens can see if they or their relatives appear on the list.

If people receive a postcard, they need to fill the corresponding code into the form or type their name and former address as it appears on the newspaper list and select what kind of property to check.

“Sometimes people move out of town and leave behind their utilities deposit and the city passes it over to us,” Farmer said. “In this simple case, one just needs a picture ID, a bill showing the former address and has to sign an authorization form.”

Some holders might be hard to locate, especially when the owners have moved or sold their property because their possessions remain registered under the former address and company name.

This was the case for former Stephens College employee Jody Russell.

Vice President of Advancement Carol Julian said Russell stopped working for Stephens College many years ago and has not heard of the list.

Joe Moore, MU system manager of media relations, hasn’t heard from the office either, even though the UM Board of Curators appears among the names in the newspaper.

“I’m not surprised that in such a big system as the university’s something can be lost or forgotten,” Moore said.

Harper said big companies appear in the list but are cleared off three or four times a year because they have an ongoing relationship with the office and touch base periodically.

“On a regular basis, almost every day, something gets lost along the way when it comes to processing documents for larger corporations or institutions, such as the University of Missouri or the Department of Revenue,” Harper said. Donations, tuition checks and utility refunds are among the property held by the office that can get dispersed in the daily flow of documents.

Under the state law, unclaimed property must be turned over to the state if the holders haven’t had any contact with the owners for at least five years. Recently, the statute has been revised to require insurance companies to do so after two years.

When it comes to residents, Farmer said most abandoned property belongs to people who moved away or who have an unknown relative who died.

“Most times people pass away and their safety boxes remain undiscovered,” Farmer said, “and it is amazing to see what people have in it, sometimes one can find really peculiar things.”

Farmer mentioned signed baseball cards, porcelain dolls, diamond rings and even false teeth and cremated remains. In two occasions, the boxes held hidden treasures — letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and the debut issue of the comic book Batman were discovered in safety boxes.

Although Farmer said the office would like to keep the contents of safe-deposit boxes until an owner or heir is identified, the unclaimed property vault reaches capacity every couple of years. When this happens, as it did two years ago, the department holds an auction. If the property owner is unidentified at the time of the auction, the Unclaimed Property Division records the sale profit to return to the owner once identified.

Whatever the fate of some forgotten items might turn out to be, they never become the property of the state of Missouri.

Returning items to their rightful owners is the motivation to keep searching, Farmer and Harper said.

“It is just our mission,” they said.

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