The state of Washington is holding dentist Mike Condon’s money. Nothing you could buy a yacht with between $50 and $100. Maybe it got lost in the mail. Maybe it got sent to a doctor in the area with a similar name.
“It happens a lot, things get misplaced,” says Condon, the brother of Spokane Mayor David Condon.
Condon’s claim is chump change compared to the nearly trillion dollars in uncashed paychecks, rent security deposits, refunds, unclaimed insurance benefits, stocks and bonds that businesses must forward to state government. Some of the owners of that loot have died. Others likely just moved out of state or changed addresses. That orphan money — $830 million right now, according to the state Department of Revenue — then goes into the state’s general fund. Since 1955, the state had more than $1 billion forwarded to it by businesses.
Condon, owner of Condon Dental Services, didn’t know about this claim until The Inlander called him. It’s likely a dental insurance claim — it’s identified on the state’s website as a benefit claim payment from Aetna Life Insurance — which is no big surprise. Condon’s office periodically checks the website from their Liberty Lake office and often finds unclaimed money, he says. Insurance companies, he adds, aren’t the best at keeping things from getting “lost in the shuffle.”
But why wait until the money has been sent on to the state?
“A lot of times, chasing it is more expensive than waiting for it to turn up,” he says. “Imagine how bad government is. Big insurance companies are the same.”
When unclaimed money is forwarded to the state, the revenue department mails a letter to the last known address of each person with at least $75 in unclaimed assets, according to department spokesman Mike Gowrylow. Amounts down to $25 are logged into the state’s database, which people can search at www.ucp.dor.wa.gov.
Tough luck here for small-timers. The state doesn’t make much effort to advertise claims under $25.
The revenue department also employs a finder to track down people with substantial unclaimed property. One instance involved a $16,000 life insurance policy that an heir didn’t even know they owed.
Heirs, in fact, helped usher in the idea of state stewardship for unclaimed property.
Local (semi-)celebrities whose names appeared in the state's database of unclaimed money as of press time.
Gowrylow says unclaimed-property statutes are often called the “W.C. Fields law.” The famous comedian and actor (known for quotes like “‘Twas a woman drove me to drink. I never had the courtesy to thank her”) died in 1946. His heirs had to scour the country looking for all the pieces of his estate.
“He had money socked away in banks all across the country,” Gowrylow says. “His heirs had a heck of a time finding it all.”
The idea, then, was to put money in a centralized place; all you have to do is look. Washington’s website is linked to a national site in order to make it easier to search for money across borders.
The state of Washington has paid $6.4 million to 11,619 Spokane County residents over the past three fiscal years, according to Gowrylow. And there’s more out there: Over $32.1 million in unclaimed property is attached to people with last known addresses in Spokane County.
There is currently unclaimed property registered to more than three million names with addresses in Washington. That’s a problem if your last name is Brown.
A recent search of that name yielded 10,813 results. Of those, the state web page displayed 10 names at a time.
Other searches reveal familiar Washington names. Money owed to Boeing and Microsoft. An undisclosed amount — larger than $100 — in a checking account from Democratic U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s 2000 exploratory committee.
The amount of unclaimed property is increasing, Gowrylow says, because more businesses are following the law to forward that property along to the state. Whereas only 5,000 businesses sent unclaimed property to the state a decade ago, more than 26,000 do so now.
“It’s a lot of money, and it keeps going up,” he says. “It isn’t that we can’t locate people, but we aren’t staffed to call every person in the state to point out they have unclaimed property. We instead rely on publicity and the online searchable database.”
In order to claim property, a person must create a log-in profile with the revenue department, which includes submitting an address and Social Security number. Then they must verify that their name is the same as the claim, or must say if the property owner is deceased.
A record 108,441 people successfully collected money from the state in the 2011 fiscal year, according to Gowrylow.
Some states around the country are investigating whether insurance companies are notifying heirs of unclaimed property, according to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal.
The state Office of the Insurance Commissioner is not undertaking any such investigation here, according to Stephanie Marquis, a spokeswoman for that office.
“Our law requiring insurers to pay interest on death claims seems to us to encourage insurers to find beneficiaries and pay them as soon as they can,” Marquis writes in an email.
Area legislators say they are aware of the pot of lost gold but don’t know whether the state could be doing anything different.
State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, says there may be federal statutes limiting, for instance, whether the state can invest the money. State Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, says he’s satisfied that the state makes an effort to return money to its owners.
Parker adds that he says he thinks the state tries to “put the owner in the forefront.”
But still, it’s a lot of cash.
Gowrylow says that the state holds back enough money from the general fund to pay back the number of people it thinks will ask for their money. Nowadays, that’s 90,000 or 100,000 people a year, asking for between $40 million and $50 million.
While his office receives mostly small amounts, Condon, the dentist, says getting the money whenever possible is nonetheless important for his business.
“We’ve got the same squeeze as everybody else,” he says. “Everybody’s pinching every penny they can. Every $50 helps.”