What Does Escheat Mean?

By Corky Cootes

In the unclaimed property world we toss the word escheat around freely, to the befuddlement of the uninitiated. Further complicating matters, we often use it incorrectly!

The word escheat comes from the Old French word escheoir, meaning “to fall” and entered into the English language during the Norman Conquest. When William the Conqueror took over England, he owned all the land, and gave his vassals the right to use certain plots of land as tenants. If ever a tenant ran afoul of the crown, or died without an heir, the land would “escheat” back to the king.

In the present day United States, escheatment refers to the legal transfer of property to the state. If a person dies intestate, and no heirs are around to claim their property, that land will eventually escheat to the state.

But when we are talking about unclaimed savings accounts or payroll checks, we are rarely talking about true escheatment. When money is considered abandoned after a given dormancy period it is remitted to a state, which acts as the custodian of the property until the rightful owner comes to claim it. There is almost never a time-limit, meaning your great-great-great-granddaughter could recover that check you never cashed—provided she has the proper documentation.

That said, be aware that there are certain jurisdictions that have provisions for the “true escheat” of unclaimed monies.

For example, the Bank of Canada will hold unclaimed balances of less than $1,000 for 30 years before definitively transferring that money to the Receiver General for Canada. Amounts of over $1,000 are held for 100 years.

In 2014, Hawaii adopted a law that requires that funds less than $100 must be claimed within 10 years after being remitted to the state, or else those funds will truly escheat to the State, and be transferred to the general fund. Beginning July 1, 2024, unclaimed funds less than $100 and received before 2015 will escheat to the State if not claimed.

In Indiana, abandoned funds become state property after 25 years, regardless of the amount.

All that said, everyone in the unclaimed property world knows that if you say “escheat” you actually mean “report and remit unclaimed funds to the state, which acts as a custodian.”