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Why treasures in safe deposit boxes get 'lost'

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Why treasures in safe deposit boxes get 'lost'

Each year thousands of safe deposit boxes are declared 'abandoned' and their contents turned over to the state – even when their owners could be easily found.

By Liz Pulliam Weston

Are the contents of your safe deposit box safe?

Are you sure?

Every year, untold numbers of safe deposit boxes are declared "abandoned," drilled open and their contents turned over to state unclaimed-property offices. Whatever's inside that can be auctioned -- jewelry, stamp collections, coins, watches -- eventually is sold to the highest bidder.

The proceeds from these sales join the estimated $23 billion sitting in states' escheat coffers, waiting for the rightful owners to appear. But the stuff that's sold, much of it irreplaceable memorabilia and heirlooms, can never be retrieved.

I've attended one of these auctions, and it was indescribably sad. Engraved wedding bands, silver baby rattles, carefully tended baseball-card collections, all being inspected by and sold to complete strangers. People cared for these objects enough to place them in banks for safekeeping, only to lose them forever.

Rightful owners not always hard to find

Some of the boxes belong to people who died without letting their heirs know where to look for their treasures. Others are left behind by those who move and leave no forwarding address.

But sometimes the owners are still very much alive, and not that hard to find. I interviewed one couple who still had an active checking account at the bank branch that decided they were "missing" and turned their property over to the state.

The couple wasn't an anomaly. In the 24 hours before one California unclaimed-property auction, Los Angeles Times reporter Kathy Kristof was able to locate six of a sample list of 24 individuals whose boxes had been declared abandoned by their banks. Three hadn't moved in decades, and two still had checking accounts at the same banks.

California, like other states, requires its financial institutions to attempt to contact the owners of safe deposit boxes before drilling the boxes and turning the contents over to the unclaimed property office. But -- also like most other states -- there are no guidelines about how hard the banks have to try, or penalties for failure.

Poor record-keeping

Sometimes, banks don't even bother to tell the state who owns the box, or the state loses track of who owned what. Kristof's subsequent investigation found an estimated 700,000 Californians may have permanently lost possessions or savings because of poor record-keeping by banks or the state.

Bank mergers and changing policies on fees help contribute to the confusion. Records may be lost when banks change computer systems, often in the wake of a merger. Meanwhile, services the original bank offered for free may incur charges under the new regime. If the safe deposit box owners don't know about the fee or ignore the bills, the bank can drill the box after a period of time -- typically two or three years, depending on state law.

The unclaimed-property office may hang on to the contents for another few years before putting saleable items up for auction. Some states have once- or twice-a-year live auctions; others have online auctions, and a few, like Colorado, even use eBay.

Items that can't be sold, like birth or marriage certificates, may be shredded.

3 ways to protect yourself

So how can you protect yourself and your possessions if you have a safe deposit box? Consider the following steps:

■ Call your bank. If you don't remember paying a safe deposit fee recently, ask your bank if your box is free. If not, stop by the branch, make sure your box is still there and pay the bill. If possible, set up an automatic payment so the fee is deducted each year from your checking account.

■ Visit your box. At least once a year, open the box and inspect its contents. Then make sure the bank has the correct address on file for you.

■ Tell your heirs. Ideally, you'll mention the box in your will (which you won't, by the way, store in the box -- safe deposit boxes may be sealed at death). At the very least, let a trusted friend or relative know about the box's existence.

If you suspect you may have abandoned a safe deposit box in the past, or are the heir of someone who may have done so, you'll want to search the free online databases offered by most states. You can find links to the databases at either of two Web sites, and Both are run by the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators, which represent the state officials charged with safeguarding homeless funds.

The heirlooms may be gone, but if halfway decent records were kept, you may be able to reclaim at least some of their dollar value. State unclaimed property offices are required to hold on to auction proceeds indefinitely, in case the original owners or their heirs ever step forward.

That sometimes happens, even decades after the boxes were turned over to the state. Unclaimed property offices returned $875 million to owners or heirs last year, an amount that includes everything from safe deposit box contents to unclaimed paychecks to utility deposit refunds.

Let's hope, if you're unlucky enough to lose a box, you'll at least be one of those "success" stories.

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