There is a needless and unfair difficulty in Manitoba and other jurisdictions for beneficiaries of inheritances who are unable to locate valuable assets. The scenario is often the same, where assets are invested in personal property such as stocks, bonds and savings accounts rather than real estate. Prior to the death of their relative, the beneficiaries had assumed that they would inherit significant amounts of money. However, once the relative has died, and the will is read, it is discovered that assets were insufficient even to cover funeral expenses. Stock issuing companies and financial intermediaries usually mail out letters and reports to shareholders and investors, however if three consecutive letters are marked “return to sender”, often no further letters or reports are mailed out to the missing investor, until a new address is provided. The Canada Business Corporation Act and the various provincial statutes dealing with corporations require companies to maintain records of last known addresses of their investors. They are not required to seek out missing investors and generally they do not. Nor are provincially incorporated trust companies and credit unions required to do so. The fact is that people do move on average every six years, and may not have their mail redirected, or they may forget to advise of their new address. Others die without leaving proper records of their assets for their executors to deal with. In such cases, the assets become unclaimed property for the benefit of the stock issuing corporations or financial intermediaries, or life insurance companies. In contrast, real estate in Manitoba is publicly registered under the Torrens system and ownership is easily determined by searching at a land titles office.
The situation is also different with chartered bank deposits. Chartered banks are required to transfer funds in accounts unused for ten years to the Bank of Canada which maintains a website of dormant accounts. Anyone can look on the internet under their name to search for missing accounts. To release the funds for you, the Bank of Canada requires a confirmation of your signature from the Canadian bank where the funds were initially held. Heirs to the estate of the owners of the unclaimed balance may also claim by filing documentation with the Bank of Canada. However, the Bank of Canada website does not include funds owed under life insurance policies or annuity contracts, stock dividends, or shares in companies which have been bought out.
Unclaimed property is treated differently in the United States, where it is generally escheated to state governments. The concept of escheatment developed in medieval England where real property whose owners or heirs could not be found escheated or passed to the Crown. Generally, in the United States, unclaimed personal property is acquired by the state governments if the rightful owners cannot be found after many years. Most American states have adopted the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, which requires the holders of unclaimed property to make an attempt to find the rightful owner. If the owner of the property cannot be found, the holder must report this property to the State Treasurer, who then publicly issues a notification of unclaimed property. Afterwards, the money passes to the State Treasurer. However the money remains potentially available to subsequently appearing owners or beneficiaries of inheritances. The publication of a list of names of owners of unclaimed property has given rise to an industry in the United States of professional finders. There are people who search through the advertisements of unclaimed property and contact the owners offering to advise them of the location of their unclaimed property in return for a percentage. The finder therefore is in a position to reap a substantial reward for little effort.
Several Canadian provinces, including Quebec, Alberta and British Columbia have unclaimed property legislation and offer centralized databases for searches. The province with the largest financial sector which is Ontario does not have unclaimed property legislation in force. Neither does Manitoba. The problem with unclaimed property is historic. Lord Coke, who authored much of the English common law through his seventeenth century judgements, summed up his views on lost property in a decision written in 1615. “If a man therefore which findes goods, if he be wise, he will then search out the right owner of them, and so deliver them unto him.” Just how much missing good money is out there in dormant accounts in Manitoba remains to be seen.