Where is my unclaimed money and how do I retrieve it?

Woman sitting at table putting a coin in a piggy bank, thinking about unclaimed money and where to find it.

Even if you’re scrupulous with financial paperwork, you may unknowingly have lost bundles of cash over the years. And we’re not talking about coins in lounge cushions. 

The federal government estimates around $1.1 billion in shares, investments, bank accounts and life insurance is sitting unclaimed in Australia right now. 

If you think you might be the rightful owner of forgotten funds, there are a few different ways to reclaim them. You’ll need to know in what form the cash was lost to start your investigation, take steps to prove it’s yours and retrieve it and understand limitations around what you can recoup.

How might I lose money? 

Money might be left behind when you change addresses, jobs or financial institutions and don’t properly update their details. There are various sources through which money can be misplaced, including:

  • Bank accounts: Whether you’re shifting to a savings account, regular transaction account or all your banking needs, don’t forget to transfer every cent over and close old accounts. Also update your info with anyone who might send money to the old account, like an employer or family member. If you leave the account open with cash still present (which could be quietly earning interest), it can be deemed ‘unclaimed money’ if there’s no activity for seven years.
  • Life insurance: Similarly, if you’re entitled to a payout from a life insurance company and don’t claim it within seven years of its maturity, it becomes classified as ‘unclaimed’. This can occur when you’ve changed banking institutions or contact details.
  • Shares and investments: You may have shares or investments floating around as unclaimed money for similar bookkeeping reasons. You can reclaim them whether or not they’re still held by a company.
  • Unpaid wages: If you leave a business and can’t be contacted – and your banking information has changed – you may be owed wages, perhaps if you’ve been underpaid or left before your final payment period. The Fair Work Ombudsman can discover these lost wages if the business is audited and will hold them until the former employee is identified.
  • Superannuation: In 2019, the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) recorded $21 billion in lost and unclaimed super, and started reuniting super fund customers with their nest eggs. You may have misplaced your fund earnings if you forgot about existing funds and registered new accounts with different employers.
  • Gambling winnings: While digital gambling and some casinos often send winnings straight to your bank account, other forms of gambling like race betting, pokies and lotteries require you to physically collect the cash. Geographical issues, along with lost tickets, miscommunication and missed deadline collections could mean you never receive your winnings. 

Where is my unclaimed money and how can I get it back? 

Money lost from life insurance policies, bank accounts, shares and investments can be reclaimed through the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). For money that’s slipped through bank accounts and life insurance policies, the reclaiming process is facilitated through ASCI and its searchable database of unclaimed funds, but will involve you contacting the relevant financial institution to kick-start the process. For shares and investments, it’s a streamlined ASIC application. 

For lost wages, head to the Fair Work Ombudsman. Once you’ve completed a search for unpaid wages and found a missing amount (keep old payslips handy as you’ll need the company’s ABN or business name to do this), contact the Ombudsman. Things like wages, money from deceased estates and overpayments are also dealt with via state and territory government agencies.

The ATO is your go-to for scouting out errant superannuation. If the ATO is holding your unclaimed super, it can transfer smaller amounts directly to your most active current fund. In other circumstances you’ll need to do this manually via the ATO website through myGov. Providers also offer services for super consolidation. Make sure it’s free (like the ATO option) and the provider you’re consolidating through is the fund you want to stick with.

In Australia, gambling is largely regulated by the states and territories. If you believe you have unclaimed gambling winnings, there will be different processes to retrieve it and time-based restrictions depending on where the gaming or ticket purchase took place, as well as the gambling source (such as gaming machines, lottery jackpots or phone and internet betting).

Could my unclaimed money be gone for good?

It’s unlikely your lost dosh will be inaccessible, although it may be difficult to locate if you don’t have the appropriate details and proof of ownership. 

Unclaimed money made through gambling is the main exception to this rule, due to the different jurisdictions managing it. For example, in NSW, gaming machine jackpots and proceeds from winning tickets cannot be claimed or redeemed after 12 months and are funnelled into the Community Development Fund.

Avoid your money becoming unclaimed by updating your personal details – changed name, address, phone number or email – with all your financial institutions and any businesses that may contribute to your earnings. To ensure accounts remain active, assess your personal finances at the end of each financial year, and make sure you are making deposits or withdrawals to your current bank accounts at least once every seven years.

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