Stuff: Alabama’s Unclaimed Property

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This week on WBHM, we’re talking about stuff–how to manage it and what people do with it. One place to put valuable stuff is behind the steel doors of a bank vault, in a safe deposit box. But sometimes, people forget about those boxes, or they die before getting the valuables out of the bank. In Alabama, those items end up in the State Treasury’s Unclaimed Property Division.

It’s an interesting time to be at the State Capitol building in Montgomery. A bevy of newly elected officials are setting up shop in this 160 year old building. But as politicians come and go, one function of state government stays pretty much the same.

Ralph Ainsworth is Director of the state’s Unclaimed Property Division. We’re down in the Capitol basement, where you’ll find something that could be called the state’s official lost and found. Unclaimed property includes stocks, bonds, and uncashed checks, as well as items from abandoned safe deposit boxes. All of it ends up in a vault, in the Capitol basement.Double combination safes are embedded into the walls. They’re arranged like kitchen cabinets.The vault isn’t very big, it’s about the size of a small office, but it holds over 400 million dollars in unclaimed property. More arrives all the time.

‘Now this right here is only partial property of one owner.’

It’s Natalie Rudolph’s job to sort through the items that come into Unclaimed Property. Coins are a common item found in safe deposit boxes, like these Benjamin Franklin half dollars.

‘The dates are random and there are all kinds, but there are a lot of them!’

Rudolph will count all the silver dollars and re-bag them. Then Unclaimed Property will attempt to contact the owner, through a last known address or probate records. If the owner doesn’t claim the coins within three years, they’ll be sold in an online auction.

‘Maybe I need to start a coin collection, so I can come up with all this!’

The Unclaimed Property Division recently received a large shipment from Regions. Those boxes are stacked floor to ceiling in the vault, waiting for Rudolph and her colleagues to sort through.In addition to coins, the folks at Unclaimed Property also see a lot of jewelry, as well as guns and knives. Ralph Ainsworth says one of the more unusual items to pass through his office was a rock. Not a precious stone. Just, you know…a rock.

‘I guess you could consider it ballast but it was probably a 30 pound rock. We didn’t know if it had any value but it went on auction. Of course, auctioneers do a great job of creating excitement during auctions. So, two gentlemen got into that auction. And at the end of that day, the rock sold for 700 plus dollars.’

Unclaimed Property also gets items with more sentimental value than monetary worth. These include photos and letters. The division holds onto those for about a year and half. If no one claims them, they’re destroyed. Military medals that aren’t reunited with their owners stay in the vault. Ralph Ainsworth would like to eventually donate those to state archives. He says every item that comes into Unclaimed Property has a mystery attached to it.

‘You know they have a story, you know they belonged to someone who somebody cared very much for. We realize that so much of this property is sentimental value. When you open a box, you’re going into somebody’s privacy.’

But the ultimate goal, he says, is to reunite people with their unclaimed items, no matter what they’re worth.