The Connecticut Treasurer’s office is making it easier for people to find and reclaim millions of dollars in uncashed checks, abandoned security deposits, forgotten insurance policies and other financial assets that are swept up by the state government.
The move comes one month after the CT Mirror published an investigative story highlighting how more than $40 million in smaller unclaimed properties are left off the state’s searchable database.
For years, the state treasurer has used this online database, called the CT Big List, to publicize those so-called unclaimed properties and to inform businesses, nonprofits, local governments and Connecticut residents how to regain possession of their money.
But that database didn’t include any lost cash, misplaced bonds, forgotten savings accounts or other property that was valued below $50.
A month ago, the CT Mirror published its own searchable database that allowed the public to discover if the treasurer was holding any of their property valued at less than $50.
As part of several broader reform measures, state Treasurer Shawn Wooden announced that loophole would be closed as of Tuesday.
Wooden, a Democrat who was elected to the office in 2018, said his team chose to announce those reforms on Tuesday because it corresponded with national “Unclaimed Property Day,” which state treasurers throughout the country celebrate.
The CT Mirror investigation also highlighted how other states, such as Rhode Island and California, have taken more proactive approaches to returning unclaimed properties to their owners, including automatically mailing checks to individuals and local governments.
Staff at the state treasurer’s office previously told the CT Mirror that state law prohibits them from publicly listing any of the unclaimed property worth less than $50 on the website. And they said fixing the loophole would require action by the legislature.
After a recent legal review, however, Wooden said his staff came to the conclusion that his office could close the loophole on their own without any type of legislative intervention.
“It’s been a longstanding interpretation of the state statutes, prior to me coming into office,” Wooden said. “I’m taking a broader view of that.”
The treasurer’s office also chose to lower some of the barriers that people previously had to clear to regain possession of their money.
The treasurer’s office, for instance, announced a policy change that will eliminate the need for people to have their claims notarized. It also intends to “fast track” the processing for any claims worth less than $2,500.
Wooden said those changes are necessary in order to modernize the unclaimed property program, which got its start nearly a century ago.
He emphasized that the improvements build upon other reforms he has made since entering office, including a significant website update in 2021 that allowed people to submit claims for unclaimed property online and to monitor those requests on the website.
“I’ve been making changes to the program since I’ve come into office,” Wooden said.
The changes should allow more people to locate and retrieve their money from the state.
There is plenty of room for improvement.
As part of its investigation, the Mirror showed that the state collected more than $2.3 billion through the unclaimed program between 2000 and 2021. Yet it returned less than 37% of that amount to its owners.
Those statistics captured the attention of several lawmakers early this year and prompted some of them to start planning for additional reforms to the unclaimed property program.
Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said he’s fielded a growing number of complaints from constituents that not all of the unclaimed property was being listed on the CT Big List.
Sampson, who is a ranking member on the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee, said Tuesday he is glad Wooden is taking action to fix the problem without legislative intervention.
“I’m very happy to hear that they’re actually going to expand the reporting of the amounts under $50,” he said. “I mean, to me, that was ridiculous. Why wouldn’t you do that?”
Still, Sampson said, he is interested in exploring whether there are additional changes that could make the program more efficient.
Sampson said he wrote a letter to his colleagues on the Government Administration and Elections Committee in January asking them to propose legislation regarding the unclaimed property program in the upcoming session.
Sampson has not spoken with other lawmakers about the specifics of any legislation, he said, but he is leaning toward the creation of a task force or a study committee, which could explore what other states are doing to reform their unclaimed property programs.
One potential change that lawmakers and the treasurer’s office could pursue is mailing checks directly to the owners of unclaimed property who can be located using other data maintained by the state, like up-to-date tax information.
Several other states, including Illinois, Louisiana, Delaware, Wisconsin, North Carolina and neighboring Rhode Island, are already doing that successfully.
Last year, the treasurer’s office voiced apprehension about any strategy that would automatically issue payments to people, arguing that it might open the program up to fraud. That stance seems to have shifted, however, in recent months.
Wooden told the CT Mirror Tuesday that he is in favor of proactively sending checks to people who can be located and properly identified. But, he said, making that change will require legislative action.
“That is something that we do not currently have the ability to do, and that would require a legislative change,” he said.
Sampson said he’d support anything that makes it easier and faster for people to regain control of their money.
“If the money belongs to someone, and they can identify that person, I think it’s incumbent upon the state to send it back to them,” Sampson said.