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Secret Stash

The state of Virginia has more than a billion dollars that belongs to you — at least some of you, anyway.



The General Assembly could use part of your money — $1.7 billion — to help offset a budget shortfall in the coming year, but you’d be able to get it back whenever you realized it had been missing.

“That is a giant pile of money,” says Benjamin Jarvela, spokesman for the Virginia Department of the Treasury, which is the custodian of financial property that winds up with the state when no one claims it.

It’s typically in the form of bank accounts, stocks, dividends, insurance claims, back paychecks or utility deposits that have fallen through the cracks. The contents of abandoned safety deposit boxes also wind up with the treasury.

Virginia ranks fifth in unclaimed property per capita — about $183 a person, according to a study released in December by SmartAsset, a company that offers financial advice.

The state doesn’t actually keep your money sitting around in an enormous bank account.

Almost all of it has been deposited in the “literary fund,” which can be spent only on elementary and secondary education, says Manju Ganeriwala, Virginia’s treasurer. The department holds back a portion to pay for the unclaimed property division’s activities, and another part is reserved to pay claims as they come in.

The average claim last fiscal year was around $1,978, Jarvela says. The treasury paid out a little more than $45 million and took possession of more than $136 million that year.

The state holds the property “in perpetuity” so it can be claimed no matter how much time has passed since the it took possession, Ganeriwala says.

In 2013, a family claimed a $20,000 inheritance that the state had been holding since the mid-1960s, Jarvela says. Inflation had chewed away at its value for the past 50 years, and because it had been set up in an account that didn’t collect interest, the balance hadn’t grown.

Still, the family landed $20,000 that it didn’t have before.

In December, Gov. Terry McAuliffe proposed selling $250 million worth of unclaimed stock to shore up the budget. He suggested that about $150 million be placed in the teacher retirement system, which is facing a significant liability, and that some be spent on school construction.

If the General Assembly agrees to sell the stock when it tackles the budget this month, the proceeds would be paid out if the owner of the stock — or a rightful heir — eventually came forward to claim it.

So if your grandfather bought 500 shares for a few bucks apiece a couple of decades ago, and they’re worth $10 each the day the state sells them, you’ll be paid $5,000 — even if the value grows to $20 a share when you come forward years down the road.

“We don’t normally tap that much stock in our portfolio,” Ganeriwala says. “Given the economic downturn, it wouldn’t have been the right time to liquidate, plus it has accumulated over the years.”

About 10 big insurance companies decided to go public in 2000, and many of the companies’ policy holders weren’t aware that they wound up with shares of stock, says Vicki Bridgeman, director of the treasury’s unclaimed property division. States across the country wound up with an out-of-the-ordinary amount of stock.

“It was quite a historical event that created this particular increase in our portfolio,” Bridgeman says.

Her division was created to protect consumers who lost track of their funds and to take the liability and responsibility of keeping records off of the account holders.

About 1 in 4 Virginians have unclaimed property held by the state — although the claimants might not live here anymore, Jarvela says.

Ask Ganeriwala and Bridgeman what would happen if everyone claimed their money all at once, and you’ll hear a lot laughing.

“There would be a huge liability for the state,” Bridgeman says. “We can get a treasury loan … but not for that much.” S

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Sarah Kleiner Varble is a staff writer for the business team at the Virginian-Pilot, where this story first appeared.

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