Question: My mother purchased an Israeli bond in my name, but I wasn’t aware that she kept it in a safe deposit box. She passed away some time ago, and now the state of California is saying that it owns the contents of the box. Can it do that?
Ric: Yes and no. First, let’s broaden the subject a bit. There’s a lot of abandoned property in this country. Sometimes people abandon it knowingly — to wit, all those junk cars left in the middle of nowhere — but often property is simply forgotten. Not that the owners literally forget (although that can and does happen), but usually after they’ve died their children aren’t aware that Dad or Mom owned real estate, a bank account, an insurance policy or a safe deposit box.
Bankers, brokers, insurance companies and other financial custodians are obligated under law to try to find and inform you that you have the account or asset. If unsuccessful after a period of time (five years in many states) the financial institution must turn the asset over to the state, which becomes the new owner. States are thus holding billions of dollars in cash and other assets that once belonged to other people.
However, if you come forward at any time and prove you are the owner of the asset or the owner’s heir, giving a legitimate reason why you hadn’t stepped forward before — say, you moved several times, served in the military overseas, were divorced and changed your name, etc. — the state will usually give the asset to you. If you explain that you’ve only recently learned about the asset, you should be able to obtain it as well.
It’s amazing how many people are unaware that they have unclaimed assets somewhere. If you search the phrase “abandoned property” on the Internet, you’ll find companies that charge a fee to help you find what’s yours. You can also conduct a search yourself: Start by visiting your state’s website for unclaimed or abandoned property. (You may have to try the state’s treasury department, attorney general’s office, commerce department, secretary of state or other agency.)
In your case, you should have no worries. You know that the state of California has taken possession of the safe deposit box. I’m confident it will return it to you once you’ve established your rightful ownership.