Hundreds of South Carolinians who are owed money as the result of a legal settlement or an insurance claim have not been paid – even though the checks have been cut to them. Unbeknownst to these citizens, their compensation is waiting to be claimed via the Palmetto State’s Unclaimed Property Program.
Administered by the office of state treasurer Curtis Loftis, this program is currently holding on to more than $850 million in unclaimed property. One out of every seven South Carolinians stand to collect a portion of those funds – which include missing money or abandoned assets the state is holding for safekeeping. During fiscal year 2021-2022, the program returned $41.2 million to its rightful owners, according to the treasurer’s accountability report.
“Better odds than playing the lottery – and it’s free,” said Loftis, who explained that returning unclaimed property to its rightful owners is one of his favorite parts of the job.
He calls it “playing Santa Claus.”
Loftis’ office is responsible for tracking an immense amount of information on unclaimed properties belonging to people with a South Carolina address – past or present. The unclaimed funds represent different kinds of intangible assets – forgotten utility deposits or bank account balances, uncashed checks, shares, dividends, settlements, estate payouts and proceeds from insurance claims, to name just a few.
Of interest? All sorts of people have unclaimed property in the database including: George and Barbara Bush, Henry McMaster, Jimmy Carter, and Nikki Haley.
Loftis said people are often surprised to learn the state is holding unclaimed property belonging to them. He encourages people to search the database and not only for their own names – but also for friends, family members, neighbors, churches and organizations.
“The money is there, we just need people to claim it,” Loftis said.
Obviously, something is ‘off’ or these funds wouldn’t be missing. Simple errors like misspelled names and incorrect addresses are common. The state receives unclaimed property to be added to the database throughout the year. However, the volume of incoming properties is greater in November and December.
Loftis recommends checking the database at least twice a year …
MISSING SETTLEMENTS …
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A FITSNews’ deep dive into this database reveals that a significant portion of unclaimed funds in the state’s database are attached to litigation – meaning the same system that enabled disbarred attorney Alex Murdaugh to steal from his clients for more than a decade is also keeping millions of dollars from its rightful owners. The funds have been paid out, they just aren’t landing in the bank accounts of beneficiaries.
Many factors contribute to this situation. First, it is very common for unclaimed properties to consist of items like utility deposits – in which cases people move away, forget to leave a forwarding address or forget they were owed money. When it comes to court cases, though – like personal injury lawsuits, negotiated settlements and probate court proceedings – these are shrouded in mystery leaving people without a law degree at a serious disadvantage.
Those who have read our Murdaugh coverage know the family members of one of his fleecing victims had no idea their case had been settled. Meanwhile, loans were made from trust funds belonging to other victims unbeknownst to them. Still other victims only received only a portion of the funds they were due. Compounding the problem, the bookkeepers at Murdaugh’s former firm did not discover the problem for more than a decade – and by then they were in deep – owing clients several million dollars in money Murdaugh recovered for their claims (and then stole).
MYTHOS AND MYSTERY …
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It can often take years to settle or adjudicate court cases – and in that time, attorneys and clients can easily lose track of each other.
If settlements are reached with multiple parties, there may be more than one check disbursed. Attorneys’ fees and costs like medical bills will be deducted before a client check is cut. Such factors are the nature of the beast – and are likely unavoidable.
This problem is systemic. Dozens of law firms serving hundreds of clients are in the database. Some firms have one or a few entries while others have many. Could this be a sign of loose bookkeeping? Maybe. It is definitely a failure of communication. It is a sign that at some point during the process communication between attorneys and their clients ceased – and never resumed even though money was at stake.
These issues are compounded by the lack of a statewide uniform court reporting system – one that would enable an individual to search one place and find all of the legal documents pertaining to their case. As it is, each county has a separate index for civil and criminal cases, and the process for property and probate records vary significantly from one to the next. This means a comprehensive search must be done one county at a time – often requiring multiple searches per county.
Unifying these databases and making all of their records searchable must be a pivotal part of justice reform in the Palmetto State.
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Speaking of searchable databases, while the Palmetto State’s unclaimed property records are kept on the state treasurer’s website, that office populates its records with information provided by outside entities. The outside entities are responsible for the accuracy and completeness of the entries on the list.
Although it seems like a simple name search would be sufficient for individuals to find out if the state is holding missing money belonging to them, but that is not necessarily the case. The database is searchable by name. However, we found hundreds of individuals in the database whose missing funds were listed under the name of the attorney or the law firm that represented them – meaning they could not be discovered by a search of the true owner’s name.
“Businesses report funds to our office in a prescribed format that is accepted by all states,” explained Karen Ingram, communications director for the treasurer’s office. “This file is uploaded and processed systematically.”
In other words, the way the form is filled out is the way it will appear in the database. The automated system places the information into the database exactly as it is provided. If a law firm lists the name of its attorney in the first column followed by the name of the rightful owner in the second column – it is the name of the law firm and not the name of the rightful owner that will turn up in a search. Sometimes the reporting business submits the information as belonging to “multiple owners”. Since no names are provided, they cannot be found with a search.
Such weaknesses are inherent to databases. Accessible information is only as good or complete as the information provided by the reporting entities.
‘SHOW ME THE MONEY’
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South Carolina’s unclaimed property database does not provide the searcher with the exact amount of each item on the list. Instead, it categorizes the amounts as being under or over $100. Don’t be fooled by the reference point because considering the value of these claims at $100/each would be a gross underestimation. Over $100 can mean any amount from $101 to millions of dollars. The $100 reference point is simply to help an individual decide whether it will be worth it or not for them to pursue a claim.
A more realistic conclusion can be drawn from the state’s figures for 2021-2022 when $41.2 million representing 63,136 properties was distributed to rightful owners. In that scenario the average property is worth $652.
Ingram said the largest claim ever paid out by the treasurer’s office was for an estate. The value of that claim? More than $1.3 million. Larger claims than that, while listed in the database, also get extra effort from the treasurer -who tries to find the recipients.
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To assist your search, FITSNews is providing a spreadsheet containing our findings – the hundreds of individuals whose unclaimed properties are not easily searchable by name. Please note: This is just a sampling of the data and not a comprehensive list. This data was gathered from the state database at the beginning of August – and unlike the state database, this sample does not reflect changes made or new entries listed since that time.
Also, while every effort has been made to maintain the integrity of the information provided, mistakes can happen. In order to make a claim, rightful owners will need to go through the state’s official site.
Several steps are necessary to fully review this list. Where litigation is concerned, this includes a search by the recipient’s name, a search for the recipient’s attorney in the case and a search for the law firm where the attorney works.
After an unclaimed property listing has been located, filing a claim begins with the click of a button.
Loftis said the claims process does not trigger a search for unpaid parking tickets or anything like that. It exists for the purpose of returning money to its rightful owners. Also, it is assumed taxes on the properties have already been paid.
Claimants will be asked to fill out a simple form and provide information verifying their claim. Once this is done it does not take long for the treasurer’s office to process the claim.
“It varies based on the complexity of the claim and the thoroughness of the claim documentation provided,” Ingram explained. “However, in many cases, the claim may be processed within just a few weeks based on overall claim volume.”
If all else fails, those individuals who have unresolved cases or questions can reach out to their attorney or law firm by phone or email to request an update. If the case is still awaiting settlement, this is an opportunity to avoid the unclaimed property list by updating contact information …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.
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