Raiders of the lost windfall

Banks, insurers and pension funds are sitting on billions in unclaimed benefits. Now, at last, it could be pay-back time

I was flicking through the post three years ago when I saw a dreary looking envelope which had been forwarded from an address I left 10 years earlier. Dutifully, I opened it and found a cheque for £40,000 - the proceeds of an endowment policy which I had long since forgotten. If some wonderful person had not sent it on, it would just be another drop in the vast ocean of unclaimed cash held by life insurers, banks, building societies, pension funds and so on.

I was flicking through the post three years ago when I saw a dreary looking envelope which had been forwarded from an address I left 10 years earlier. Dutifully, I opened it and found a cheque for £40,000 - the proceeds of an endowment policy which I had long since forgotten. If some wonderful person had not sent it on, it would just be another drop in the vast ocean of unclaimed cash held by life insurers, banks, building societies, pension funds and so on.

Losing such details is deeply foolish and quite rare, but inheriting a financial muddle is far more common. Bereaved relatives may know someone has life insurance, savings or shares but they often have no idea where to look.

A new group - the Unclaimed Assets Register - plans to come to the rescue. It will concentrate on life insurance policies at first but expects to expand into pensions and all savings and investments eventually.

Life policies are usually among the two or three biggest assets which people hold. Standard Life has 50,000 policies worth £20m which no one has ever claimed. The Prudential holds £37m and almost all the others have unclaimed funds. Insurers try to trace people via bank accounts, or last-known addresses, though most claim that the Data Protection Registrar bans them from publicising details. Some companies even regard publishing customers' surnames and their home towns as a breach of privacy. "It might allow people to identify them," said one spokesman. Hmm... isn't that what it's supposed to do?

When the Assets Registry goes live next month, people can use it to locate lost policies, as long as they are held by insurers which have joined the scheme. These include the Prudential, Equitable Life, Standard life, Abbey Life and CGU Life.

The Unclaimed Assets Register, owned by financial service group Aon, will charge £15 and aims to discover details of any policy within 15 days. "Before we start, we need signed forms from whoever took out the policy or whoever stands to benefit from it ," says Keith Hollender, the group's managing director. "We can only cover policies issued by our members, but we'll do a second search, free, a year later, as more insurers join."

Executors are likely to be the main customers. The spate of takeovers and mergers in the past decade can make it hard to trace who is responsible for policies issued some time ago. The answer is to check with the Association of British Insurers.

Pensions may also appear on the register. This would certainly be useful for tracing personal pensions but, if you want to trace membership of a company pension, the Occupational Pensions Advisory Service (Opra) in Newcastle will help free of charge. Mergers and takeovers regularly wipe corporate names off the map, which makes tracing pension schemes on your own acutely difficult. "We receive 50,000 calls a year, and we can help 90 per cent of the time," says David Creswell of Opra. "We even managed to find the pension for a man who could only remember the name and address of the hosiery factory where he had once worked in Leicester. People usually remember the pension schemes where they made contributions but forget those where their employers paid."

Every pension scheme, with more than two members either due for a pension or already drawing it must be on the register. Those who ring in will receive a form on which they are to write down all they know.

National Savings holds vast amounts of unclaimed cash, including a staggering £1.2bn in National Savings certificates dating back to 1916. There is close to £740m more in index-linked certificates and £18m in unclaimed premium bond prizes (one in every 200 winners fails to collect). Once your certificates mature, or you win a premium bond prize, National Savings sends you a letter but, if you do not answer, that is that. You can check on potential winnings on the National Savings website on: www. nationalsavings.co.uk. National Savings inquiries can help with certificates, but you need the serial number or the original holder's signature.

Banks and building societies will usually say little about how much they hold in "defunct" accounts and just how many customers are affected. Abbey National, Barclays and NatWest all claim that such details are "commercially sensitive". However, claiming is easier than it was. Banks used to keep details at the branch but now the process has been centralised with a standard form produced by the British Bankers Association.

Shares were once a minority interest, but privatisations and demutualisations mean there are now 12.4 million shareholders in Britain. Anyone wanting to collect unclaimed shares in the Halifax, Woolwich and Alliance and Leicester should be quick. They are all coming up for the third anniversary of demutualisation. After that you are only entitled to their value (at the third anniversary) and all dividends. You then have another nine years in which to collect them.

Tracing old shares through mergers and takeovers is not easy. Groups like Shareholder Communications in London will do it for a fee depending on the work involved. The Unclaimed Assets Register will move into the field eventually. Millions of pounds are waiting to be claimed. If you suspect some of it is yours, a check could brighten up this Christmas no end.

Contacts: Unclaimed Asset Register: 0870 241 1713; Opra (Pensions) 0191 225 6316; Shareholder Communications 0171 335 8700. The National Savings website (for premium bonds) on www.nationalsavings.co.uk

You can write to either: Premium Bonds, National Savings, Blackpool FY3 9YP or: National Savings Certificates, National Savings, Durham DH99 1NS

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