Friday, January 10, 2020

2020 Vision: A Look at the Year Ahead in Unclaimed Property


Happy New Year! Last year saw a variety of developments in the world of unclaimed property. Today, we take a look ahead at five topics that might be at the forefront of unclaimed property news in 2020.

Audit Disputes & Litigation — 2019 saw a number of challenges to the State of Delaware’s audit practices; most notably, the battle between Univar, Inc. and Delaware in parallel federal and state litigations arising out of a proposed unclaimed property audit. While there were a number of procedural and narrowing decisions in that case, the real substance remains to be litigated. That battle will continue, and it appears that new ones will get underway shortly. In December, AT&T filed a lawsuit against Delaware, challenging the state’s audit practices as a violation of the company’s constitutional rights. Similar challenges were recently filed by Fruit of the Loom and Eton Corporation, both of which are challenging the state’s estimation and extrapolation practices. Substantive decisions in any of these cases will be significant for those undergoing Delaware unclaimed property audits.

Savings Bond Tug of War — Back in October, we summarized the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Laturner v. United States, in which the Court held that the federal government had no obligation to turn over the proceeds of matured, but unredeemed U.S. Savings Bonds to the states as unclaimed property. In particular, the Court ruled that state unclaimed property laws were preempted by federal laws allowing bondholders to keep the bonds after maturity, and that states (like owners) could not redeem savings bonds without presenting either the bond itself, or identifying information relating to the bond. In response, Congressman Ron Estes (who, as a former State Treasurer, knows a thing or two about unclaimed property) has proposed the “Unclaimed Savings Bond Act of 2019” which would amend federal law to allow states to take custody of unredeemed savings bonds and substantially undo the Federal Circuit’s decision in LaTurner. Unsurprisingly, the legislation is strongly supported by the National Association of State Treasurers.

More Adoptions of the 2016 Uniform Act — In 2019, Colorado and Maine joined the ranks of states adopting a variant of the 2016 Uniform Unclaimed Property Act. A number of states have similar legislation in the works which may become law during the upcoming year.

IRA Activity — Securities industry holders will also need to take a look at their programming and practices relating to assets held in Individual Retirement Accounts. In most states, the triggering event for IRA escheatment is “the date . . . specified in the income tax laws of the United States by which distribution of the property must begin in order to avoid a tax penalty.” Previously this was age 70.5, but Public Law 116-94, which was signed into law on December 20, 2019, changes the so-called “Mandatory Distribution Date” (MDD) to age 72. The new rule applies to distributions required to be made after December 31, 2019. Holders will have to update their procedures accordingly.

Oh Canada? — 2020 may also see increased unclaimed property activity outside of the United States. The Canadian provinces of Alberta, Quebec, and British Columbia all have unclaimed property regulations of varying sorts that have been in place for some time. In 2019, New Brunswick proposed legislation that might make it the fourth. The New Brunswick Unclaimed Property Act is currently pending before the province’s Standing Committee on Economic Policy. Similarly, the Manitoba Law Reform Commission has issued a report containing recommendations for an unclaimed property regulatory structure similar to those in other provinces. We will see if any of this proposed legislation develops. Of course, the main event in potential Canadian escheat laws is whether or when Ontario will enact such a law. Perhaps this is the year.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

It’s the Big White Building With the Ionic Columns and the Statue of Alexander Hamilton . . .

An Exercise in Finding the Owners of Unclaimed Property

One of the theoretical policy justifications for state unclaimed property laws is that the states will be conscientious about finding missing owners and reuniting them with their property. Indeed, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators (an affiliate of the National Association of State Treasurers) the “purpose of unclaimed property laws is to protect consumers by ensuring money owed to them is returned to them, rather than remaining permanently with financial institutions, business associations, governments, and other entities.”
 
Given that premise, the identities of “lost” owners with property being held by the state never cease to amaze. Property is not just held for those truly “lost,” or famously reclusive authors, or politicians too busy to open mail, or those off in a galaxy far, far away. Some owners of unclaimed property are . . . ahem, presumably easier to find. As we pause the week to celebrate the 243rd birthday of the United States of America, note that California, New York, Illinois, Texas, Washington, D.C., and no doubt others are all holding “abandoned” or “unclaimed” property for the United States of America, United States Government and/or United States Treasury (and probably hundreds of other federal agencies).

While Washington D.C. might get a pass here because of the whole “Taxation Without Representation” thing, for the other jurisdictions searching in vain for the United States Treasury: try the big white building in Washington, D.C. with the ionic columns and the statues of Alexander Hamilton and Albert Gallatin . . . or, you know, the back of the $10 bill 

Happy Fourth Everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Nevada Passes 2016 Uniform Act Amendments

On June 7, 2019, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak approved Senate Bill 44 which incorporates certain provisions of the 2016 Uniform Unclaimed Property Act into the Nevada Unclaimed Property Act. In particular, the new legislation adds provisions relating specifically to payroll cards and virtual currency and exempts game-related digital content and loyalty cards. It also changes the dormancy standards for life insurance policies and IRA accounts to more closely mirror the provisions of the Uniform Act and allows for the use of electronic communications.

With regard to owner claims, the new law expressly permits the state to deduct from such claims and amounts owed by the owner for outstanding child support, civil or criminal penalties, or state and local taxes. In an effort to combat fraudulent claims made for unclaimed property, the new legislation also imposes criminal penalties for the filing of false claims.

The new law goes into effect on July 1.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Colorado Passes Version of 2016 Uniform Unclaimed Property Act

New Legislation, Which Reduces Many Dormancy Periods To 3 Years, Is Effective July 1, 2020

 

On April 16, 2019, Colorado Governor Jared S. Polis signed Senate Bill 19-088 into law, which adopts a version of the 2016 Uniform Unclaimed Property Act. Under the new law, the dormancy period for most property types will drop to 3 years (down from 5). Certain bank accounts and gift cards will still be subject to a 5 year dormancy period, and other items like payroll and dissolution proceeds will continue to have a 1 year dormancy period.

With respect to securities, the new legislation imposes a 3 year dormancy period, that now begins to run upon the second instance of returned mail (as opposed to the former unclaimed dividend standard). The new law also leaves in place certain Colorado-specific exemptions that were in the prior Unclaimed Property Act, such as the exemption for certain lawyer trust accounts, gaming chips or tokens, property held by racetracks, and certain gift card proceeds held by small issuers.

The new legislation keeps the current October 31 reporting deadline for property deemed abandoned as of the previous June 30. The new law goes into effect for the 2020 report.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Is "True Escheat" The Future of Unclaimed Property?

Nevada is considering a bill "providing that all property rights and legal title to, and ownership of" of U.S. savings bonds would "vest in this State" after three years. After that three year period, the state could choose to pay the proceeds to the rightful owner of the bond, but the decision to do so would be left to the state's discretion. West Virginia is considering similar legislation, A law proposed in Hawaii goes even further providing that all unclaimed property with a value of $100 or less shall immediately "escheat to the State and be transferred to the general fund."

These are just a few examples of a new (and for unclaimed property owners, troubling) trend in unclaimed property legislation -- a shift from "custodial" escheat laws to "true" escheat laws.
Currently, most state unclaimed property laws are "custodial" in nature -- meaning that the state takes possession of the unclaimed property on the rightful owner's behalf, but the state never actually takes "title" (i.e., ownership). Instead, the state holds the property in trust, and the rightful owner can always claim the property from the state when he or she becomes aware of it. To be sure, the state may use those monies for schools, roads, or other budgetary purposes in the interim, but the rightful owner retains the right to get his or her money or property back.

The rationale for such "custodial" escheat laws is reasonably straightforward: given that the rightful owner is not in possession, someone is going to have the "free" use of the money. Better that it be the state for the use of all citizens than a private company. In the custodial paradigm, the owner theoretically is no worse off by the state, rather than a company, holding his or her property (at least if the property is cash, and not securities).

In a "true" escheat system, the state ultimately acquires not only custody of the property, but ownership. As a result, the rights of the original owner are deemed "cut off." As explained by 18th Century English jurist William Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, the rationale for "true" escheat laws is that all property rights were ultimately derived from the sovereign: "The grand and fundamental maxim of all feudal tenure is this; that all lands were originally granted out by the sovereign, and are therefore holden, either mediately or immediately, of the crown." Accordingly, where something happens to the current owner, the property reverts back to the sovereign.

While this rule may still make sense for "real property" (i.e., land) with the sovereign being the state, it is not for most "intangible" property. A share of stock you purchase from an issuer, a CD you deposit at a bank, a payroll check -- none of these items "originated" with the state. The potential for true escheat laws, along with the ever expanding scope of unclaimed property laws, and the apparently inexorable process of making dormancy periods shorter and shorter, could very well have a significant and negative impact on the owners of unclaimed property.

While the current proposals appear to be modest (just a single property type here, a $100 limit there) it is not hard to imagine such laws being expanded. Owners should be wary.