State seeks to return $1.5 billion in unclaimed property

New law pushes life insurance companies to pay out benefits

By Ginger Gadsden - Anchor, Sean Lavin - Producer

Ocala resident Matilda Council got an $8,784.12 surprise from the State of Florida: a check for unclaimed property that she didn’t know existed.

She’s not alone. Nearly $3 billion in unclaimed property has been returned to Floridians since the state’s unclaimed property initiative began in 1961.

[Click here to see if you have unclaimed property]

“Most of what we take in unclaimed property comes out of financial accounts: uncashed checks, wages, utility deposits, bank accounts, insurance benefits, stocks, bonds mutual funds – those types of things,” said Bureau of Unclaimed Property chief Walter Graham.

Unclaimed insurance benefits have recently been a hot topic. Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his team have been investigating what they call “systemic practices within the life insurance industry that grossly reduce the number of life insurance policies that are properly – and timely – paid out.”

Insurance companies are “intentionally shielding themselves from knowledge about policyholders’ deaths” so they can avoid paying out policy benefits and instead “earn millions more in interest,” according to Atwater’s office.

But that’s changing, thanks to pressure from the state.

Council’s nearly $9,000 check was a direct product of its settlement and audit of American General Life Insurance Co., Graham said.

Earlier this year, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law to strengthen consumer protections related to life insurance for anyone in Florida who buys life insurance.

“Through more than five years of regulatory investigations, Florida has been a leader in securing national settlement agreements with 20 of the largest insurance companies in the nation—agreements that ensure these companies will seek out beneficiaries and pay them long-overdue benefits,” Atwater said. “While these agreements corrected the course for the way these 20 companies conduct business, it was time to ensure that all companies operating in the state of Florida were held to the same standards of upholding the promises they made to policyholders.”

It’s not just unclaimed insurance benefits that Florida residents may have waiting for them in the state’s unclaimed property vault. There are Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson baseball cards, as well as gold watches and diamond rings, just waiting to be claimed.

“In Florida, the value of all of our unclaimed property accounts is over $1.5 billion,” Graham said.

A lot of valuables come from forgotten safe deposit boxes. The banks send the property to Tallahassee at least three years after owners stop paying the bill. Tallahassee holds onto it for at least two more years before putting it up for auction.

“Anything we sell at an auction, we credit the money we’ve made at the auction to the people's accounts, and that way they can always claim the money or their heirs can claim it,” Graham said.

News 6 is helping Graham get results and return unclaimed property to its rightful owners. He’ll be in the News 6 studios from 4 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, taking your calls and helping you find out if you have money waiting for you.

 

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