The ultimate treasure hunt - MoneySense

The ultimate treasure hunt

There are billions in ‘lost’ money out there waiting to be found. Some of it could be yours.

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Imagine delving under your sofa cushions for change and coming out with $80,000 in cash. That’s how it felt when Carolyn Williams discovered she was entitled to a surprise windfall of almost $4,000 a year for the rest of her life.

Williams, a 62-year-old semi-retired financial planner in St. John’s, found out about her “lost” money while visiting friends in Britain, where she was born. She was bemoaning the fact that she couldn’t get a British government pension because she only worked for four years in England before moving to Canada when she was 23. But an accountant pal told her that she may be able to buy her way into the pension system—and he was right. “It turned out that since I continued to work in Canada, I was able to buy a British government pension for a single payment of $3,800 in Canadian dollars,” she says. “In return, I now get $3,900 every year for the rest of my life. Now that’s what I call a good return on investment!”

If you wouldn’t mind a few extra bucks yourself, take heart. Right now there are literally billions of dollars in lost treasure out there just waiting to be claimed and part of that booty could be yours. Canadians have left cash sitting not only in foreign pension plans, but also in forgotten bank accounts, private pension plans, misplaced insurance policies, bankruptcy payouts and unclaimed estates.

“There is money scattered all over the place,” says Ian Moore, who owns MooreTech Consulting, a firm in Ottawa that helps reunite people with their missing money. “Some say that seven out of 10 of us have money out there waiting for them.” Here’s how to go looking for your own missing cash:

The account that got away
The simplest way to search for lost money is to surf over to the Bank of Canada website (www.bank-banque-canada.ca) and check out the site’s registry of unclaimed bank accounts. Moore says the Bank is holding more than $290 million in forgotten cash left behind in dormant bank accounts. When he entered names of friends and relatives on the Bank’s site, he got one hit for every eight names he searched.

To find out if you have some money waiting for you, go to the site, click on the “Services” menu and select “Unclaimed Balances.” Enter your name and any missing money will show up instantly. “It was weird when my name came up,” says Maria Grande, a doctor in St. Catharines, Ont., who found more than $200 in a 20-year-old caisse populaire account she opened back when she was a pre-med student in Montreal. “Then I recognized the name of the bank, so I knew it was mine. I ended up using the money to take my parents out for dinner at a nice restaurant to say thanks for all the help they gave me while I was at school.”

To make sure you’re not missing out on any cash, try variations on your name, such as using your initial instead of your first name. After all, there are more than 845,000 unclaimed balances in the database dating as far back as 1900—and the largest amount is more than $400,000.

Long lost life insurance
Every year, thousands of Canadians with life insurance die, but not all of that money finds its way to the beneficiaries. If a policyholder dies and no one files a claim, the insurance company assumes the policyholder is still alive, keeps the money—and does nothing to track down beneficiaries. Some insurance companies even put a time limit on claims, so if a life insurance policy isn’t discovered until a year after the policyholder dies, you could be out of luck.

The situation changes, however, once an initial claim is made by any beneficiary. Insurance companies will then hold money for any other beneficiary indefinitely, either at the insurance company itself or with the provincial trustee or courts. Sometimes insurance companies will even hire investigators to find you—but they’re not always successful. There are 630 unclaimed balances listed on the Co-operators website alone.

If you think you’re entitled to unclaimed life insurance money, your first stop should be the policy search service offered by the Canadian Life and Health Insurance OmbudService (see www.clhio.ca/policysearch.html). Mary Boles, associate general manager for the service, says nearly 99% of life insurance policies written in Canada belong to one of the service’s member firms, so a search will turn up most policies, except for group policies offered by employers. The service is free, but you have to provide a good reason for believing a lost policy exists, and the service will only do a search between three and 24 months after a person has died. If it finds a hit, “the insurance company will then communicate with the executor, beneficiary or proven heir,” says Boles.

If it’s been a while since the death, you’ll probably have to contact the insurance companies directly. Some firms, such as the Co-operators (www.cooperators.ca), let you search for unclaimed money right on their websites (click on “Unclaimed property” in the “Client Services” menu). If you’re lucky enough to live in B.C. or Quebec, you have another option. Both provinces have a centralized “unclaimed property” service designed to help you track down what’s rightfully yours. You can quickly and easily search the B.C. Unclaimed Property Society website for all kinds of unclaimed property at www.bcunclaimedproperty.bc.ca. Revenu Québec has a similar online database at www.revenu.gouv.qc.ca/eng/services/sgp_bnr/index.asp. If you don’t live in B.C. or Quebec, you can find links to most insurance companies at www.bcunclaimedproperty.bc.ca/searchdb.html. If you strike out with the insurance companies, call your provincial trustee office.

Pensions from heaven
As Carolyn Williams discovered, foreign pension plans can be a bonanza. Most countries have a foreign pension office that can help you find out what you’re entitled to. If you worked in Britain, for instance, you can contact the International Pension Centre at www.thepensionservice.gov.uk/ipc/home.asp. (Make sure to ask about buying into the plan: a modest contribution may pay off with a larger pension.) If you worked in another country, visit the Service Canada website at www.hrsdc.gc.ca/en/isp/ibfa/intlben.shtml, where you’ll find full instructions on claiming international benefits.

Even if you’ve never left Canada it’s worth checking to make sure you’re not missing out on a juicy company pension payout. You may have got your due when you left previous employers, but sometimes a surplus is discovered when pensions are wound up and that surplus often has to be distributed to all the members.

That’s what happened to Ian Moore, the lost-money consultant, a few years ago. “I worked for a company back in the late ‘80s called Eldorado Resources,” he says, “and when they wound up the pension they had a surplus that amounted to millions of dollars. I only worked there for two years, so I only got a several hundred dollars, but that was still pretty nice.”

The first step in tracking down private pension money is to call up the company you worked for and ask to speak to the pension administrator. If your company has been bought or merged with another company, that doesn’t mean that your pension money’s gone, says David Wild, chair of the Canadian Association of Pension Supervisory Authorities (CAPSA) in Regina. Just call up the pension administrator at the new company and find out what’s happened to it. If your pension has been wound up and you weren’t contacted, Wild says you should then call your provincial pension regulator. You can find a list of them on CAPSA’s website (go to www.capsa-acor.org and click on “CAPSA members”).

“When plans are terminated and the money disbursed, the vast majority of it gets into the hands of beneficiaries,” he says, “but sometimes they can’t find people. It seems that it’s becoming more and more of a problem.” Wild says that there’s no legislation dictating what happens to such unclaimed money in most provinces, but every province will hold unclaimed pension money for you somewhere. Try the provincial public guardian and trustee office first, and then the courts. If you live in B.C. or Quebec, you should try your province’s unclaimed property database too.

Heir to a secret fortune?
While it’s unlikely that you’ve inherited millions from a distant relative without knowing about your good fortune, it’s not impossible. Lawyers and estate executors usually do a good job of tracking down beneficiaries, but they’re not perfect. If you think that you may be a beneficiary to an estate, contact the courthouse nearest to where your relative lived and explain what you’re looking for; you may want to call that province’s public guardian and trustee office as well.

If your relative died without a will, or no executor was found, the trustee office often helps to administer the estate. In Ontario, you can find full instructions on how to make an estate claim at the Attorney General’s website (www.attorneygeneral.jus.gov.on.ca). Click on “Family Justice”, then “Administration of Estates” in the “Office of the Public Guardian and Trustee” section. If your relative lived in B.C. or Quebec, click on over to that province’s unclaimed property database. In all other provinces, just enter the words “public guardian trustee” and the name of your province in an online search engine, and contact information will come up.

Bankruptcy bounty
You may think that after creditors are finished picking through the bleached carcass of a bankrupt company, there couldn’t possibly be anything left. In fact, there’s more than $10 million in unclaimed funds from bankrupt firms out there just waiting for someone to claim it.

Ian Moore, the missing money consultant, has helped clients recover as much as $320,000 in missing money from bankrupt firms. “I remember one fellow from Winnipeg who did some consulting work for a company that went bankrupt before he was paid,” says Moore. “He knew he was owed money, but as the years went by he forgot about it. He hired me to find it for him, and bing, bam, boom, I got him $11,000.”

Finding out if you’re owed money from a bankruptcy couldn’t be simpler. Go to the website of the Office of the Superintendent of Bankruptcy Canada (www.osb-bsf.ic.gc.ca), click on “Creditors”, then “Unclaimed Dividends” and enter your name in the database (note that you have to register with Strategis at strategis.ic.gc.ca first). Try variations on your name—if you’re owed anything, the details will pop up right away.

Leave no stone unturned
There are many other places you can find missing money, so use your imagination. For instance, if you find some old stock certificates in the attic that your Grandpa bought years ago, you could be sitting on a fortune. A single share of Haloid purchased in 1906 would be worth more than $1 million in Xerox stock today.

The Ontario Securities Commission lists several agencies which can help you find out if an old stock certificate is still valid. Go to www.osc.gov.on.ca, click on “Fast Answers”, then “Investor and Consumer Inquiries”, then “Companies”. Even if you find your certificate was issued by a long-dead company, you may want to hold onto it. There’s a collector’s market in old certificates, valid or not. Rare items, such as an original Standard Oil stock certificate signed by John D. Rockefeller, have been auctioned off for more than $100,000. While your own search for lost cash may not turn up quite such a big windfall, the results can still be rewarding.

Quick, easy money
The fastest ways to find lost cash
• Do you have money sitting in an old bank account?
Find out at: www.bank-banque-canada.ca (click on the “Services” menu and select “unclaimed Balances”.)
• Do you have unclaimed money in B.C.?
Find out at: www.bcunclaimedproperty.bc.ca
• Do you have unclaimed money in Quebec?
Find out at: www.revenu.gouv.qc.ca/eng/services/sgp_bnr/index.asp
• Do you have unclaimed money in the U.S.?
Find out at: www.missingmoney.com
• Do you have unclaimed money from a bankruptcy?
Find out at: www.osb-bsf.ic.gc.ca (Click on “creditors”, then “unclaimed Dividends”.
Register with Strategis at strategis.ic.gc.ca first.)