John Chiang calvets

State Controller John Chiang announces the data match with CalVet that discovered 95,000 California veterans with unclaimed property in the Controller’s database.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — On Thursday, standing next to display cases full of unclaimed military medals and service-related items, California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) Secretary Peter J. Gravett and State Controller John Chiang announced a data-matching initiative which could return unclaimed property worth some $36 million to 95,000 of the state’s veterans. Among the items displayed were a Navajo code-talker medal, a row of Purple Hearts and a World War I uniform cap.

The initiative compared names on the Controller’s Office list of unclaimed property, with CalVet’s list of veterans. The comparison netted some 95,000 matches, and those people will receive letters giving them all the information needed to retrieve their items.

After a specified period of time, abandoned or forgotten valuables revert to the state. The process, called “escheat,” has its origins in feudal times. When a deceased person had no heirs, their property reverted to the feudal lord. In modern times, the property may be in the form of forgotten apartment security deposits, uncashed checks, jewelry, or — in the case of veterans — medals and items of incalculable value to service members and their families. Military personnel are often on the move from deployments and transfers which increases the possibility of losing track of possessions. In 2007, for example, a medal of honor — sent to the state from an abandoned safe deposit box — was returned to the recipient’s family.

But most unclaimed property is in the form of uncashed checks, cash or assets forgotten in bank accounts, terminated insurance policies, utility deposits, and stocks and bonds. Businesses these days clear their books of unclaimed property after a specified period of time determined by the state.

As CalVet and the Controller’s Office were announcing the program to return unclaimed property to veterans, for example, Mike Schellin, an accountant at PTI Solutions in Sacramento was sending a year-old uncashed payroll check to the Controller’s Office.

“From an accounting perspective,” said Schellin, “it makes perfect sense.” The business already paid the money and taxes owed on it, and carrying it on the books is cumbersome. “How do you ‘unpay’ taxes?” Schellin says uncashed checks are usually for amounts of less than $50, and the company does its due diligence in attempting to contact the person before submitting the matter to the state.

When Chiang took office in 2007, the state was under fire for using unclaimed property to  balance its own books. But Chiang vowed to change that and now, California is the only state to proactively notify owners of unclaimed property before it is sent to the state. The Controller’s Office also has an unclaimed property website where people can search by name to see if the state is in possession of his or her unclaimed property. The Controller’s Office has returned some $3 billion in unclaimed property to its rightful owners or heirs, but still has $7.1 billion remaining, and has enlisted the help of media to spread the word about the initiative and website.

To check for unclaimed property, go to www.claimit.ca.org and search by name and location. And hopefully on this Memorial Day, long-lost properties and the memories that accompany them, will be returned to thousands of veterans who have given so much to their country.

Story photo: John Reece, District 13 Commander, Team Amvets.