Unclaimed money

Pa. is sitting on billions in unclaimed property. This bill would get some of it back to its owners

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania’s treasurer wants the state to start sending unclaimed money directly to the people it belongs to, a proactive system that a dozen other states have adopted.

The state is currently sitting on more than $4 billion in misplaced money: the check you forgot to cash; the gift card you never got around to spending; the tax refund that was sent to your old address.

The money is swept into Pennsylvania’s coffers every year, and represents hundreds of millions of dollars that people have lost track of. But it doesn’t belong to the state: Its rightful owners can come and claim it anytime.

The current system for reclaiming that money, however, puts the burden squarely on the roughly one in 10 Pennsylvanians whose misplaced dollars the state is holding. To get it back, they must search for their name in a public database, then file a claim. But many likely have no idea there is money waiting for them in the first place.

State Treasurer Stacy Garrity wants to change that. Following the lead of states like Illinois and Wisconsin, she has proposed legislation that would allow the state to automatically return some money to people with no action required on their part.

All states have unclaimed property laws, which officials say protect residents by safeguarding missing money until it can be returned. Critics, including the financial institutions responsible for turning over unclaimed funds, have long questioned whether states are doing enough to reunite people with their money. After all, many residents aren’t hard for state governments to find: They pay taxes each year, update the address on their driver’s license, and register to vote.

Garrity said the state Treasury can often identify a current address for people who have unclaimed funds. But without a change in the law, it can’t send people their money back unless they file a formal claim.

A bill that would allow the Treasury to proactively return some unclaimed funds, introduced by state Sen. John DiSanto (R., Dauphin), was voted out of the Senate’s Finance Committee in early May with unanimous support.

“It’s pretty much a no-brainer,” DiSanto told Spotlight PA. “It’s a win for everybody.”

The proposed change wouldn’t apply to most of the money the state receives; only amounts under $5,000 with a sole owner who is still alive would qualify. In more complex or higher-value cases, people would still have to file claims. Unclaimed property owed to businesses, nonprofits, or local governments also wouldn’t qualify.

Still, for those eligible to get money back, the change would be profound: Imagine getting a surprise stimulus check in the mail — except the money has been yours all along.

Over the past five years, Pennsylvania has returned just over half of the money it collected, state Treasury data show.

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