Unclaimed property remains a revenue source for many states. It can take two forms: tangible (such as unclaimed safe deposit boxes) and intangible (unclaimed general ledger property). Each state sets its own rules regarding when property may be declared unclaimed and how to legally dispose of such property. This article offers a general overview of unclaimed property laws and guidelines for how entities must comply with them, but for specific laws regarding unclaimed property in your state, consult your state’s website or an attorney.
What Exactly Is Unclaimed Property?
Unclaimed property is just what the name implies: something left behind, unclaimed for a period of time, or abandoned.
A good example is a bank safe deposit box. Often, families aren’t aware that a relative has a safe deposit box, nor do they have access to the key. If the owner of the box passes away, the bank may be unaware for a period of time during which the family has already settled the estate. The bank may be unable to find the legal owner of the box.
Banks are required to conduct due diligence and make every effort to find the legal owner. After exhausting these avenues and after a specific time period has passed, the laws governing the disposal of such unclaimed property go into effect, and the contents may revert to the state or to the property holder. If the property reverts to the state, this is called escheatment.
Nonprofits May Have Unclaimed Property, Too
Intangible property, such as general ledger entries, may also be declared unclaimed property. An example of such unclaimed property may be paychecks owed to an employee who leaves, moves away, and provides no forwarding address. In such an example, nonprofits are bound to use every appropriate means (letters, emails, etc.) to find the person to which the money is owed. If the owner cannot be located after a set time, state laws also govern how intangible property is disposed.
The time period in which property remains idle is called the dormancy period. Depending on the state, this may be one, two, three, or more years. During this time, the holder of the property is required to make every good faith effort to contact the original property owner. After the appropriate efforts have been made and the period has passed without contact from the property owner, the holder must escheat or give the property over to the proper jurisdiction. First dibs go to the property owner’s state, with the holder’s state in second place for the escheatment.
Types of Unclaimed Property Nonprofits May Encounter
Most nonprofit accountants will go through their career with very few instances of unclaimed property crossing their desks. But it can, and does, happen. A few examples of unclaimed property a nonprofit may encounter and should account for include:
- Customer overpayments
- Rebates from manufacturers
- Unclaimed rights (mineral, oil, gas)
If your nonprofit has a history of inconsistent reporting of unclaimed property, the state may flag it as the target of an audit. Audits are conducted by third parties. Once one state requests an audit, others may join in as well.
One way to potentially avoid the unpleasant disruption of an audit is to have a consistent and clear method of reporting unclaimed property. Voluntary Disclosure Agreement programs enable organizations to become compliant and avoid audits and associated late fees and penalties in their reporting.
Although unclaimed property isn’t something you’ll encounter often, it is a possibility, so it pays to be prepared.
Welter Consulting bridges people and technology together for effective solutions for nonprofit organizations. We offer software and services that can help you with your accounting needs. Please contact Welter Consulting at 206-605-3113 for more information.