Maybe they’re alive, maybe not. Maybe they’re still in business. They could’ve moved. Quite possibly, they just don’t care.
Whatever the case, central San Joaquin Valley businesses, governments and individuals are leaving a lot of money on the table.
The total is more than $70 million in cash in Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Madera counties. In addition, there are a few million shares of tradeable assets and the contents of close to 2,000 safe-deposit boxes.
All of it is what California calls “unclaimed property.”
Since the 1950s, the state has accumulated and presently holds more than 28.6 million unclaimed assets worth an estimated $7.6 billion, according to the state Controller’s Office. These assets are primarily cash, usually from bank accounts, insurance policies or stocks. And it’s a number that keeps growing.
In the case of Roger Vinçon, it’s almost $79,000 from a Bank of America checking account.
Vinçon was a French citizen who owned a northwest Fresno home and worked 30 years as a PG&E electrician. He was born in Marseilles, France and spent the first nine years of his life in an orphanage before being adopted by André Vinçon.
At 18, he enlisted in the French Air Force and saw combat duty in the French War in Indochina, according to an Alliance Française obituary published after he died. In the mid-1960s, he came to San Francisco and, eventually, Fresno.
The state of California presently holds more than 28.6 million in unclaimed assets worth an estimated $7.6 billion.
Bank of America didn’t hear from Vinçon for years, and likely didn’t know he had died. There was no activity in his checking account, so in November 2013 the bank turned the cash over to the state. That’s the law.
Kristen Laurenti, Vinçon’s one-time neighbor, only had an inkling of what was happening.
He loved to make marmalade, she recalled. He had a suit of armor in his house. He was a bonsai tree aficionado.
And, Laurenti said, Vinçon was “definitely a bachelor.”
By 2008, he was suffering from mesothelioma — a rare form of cancer that attacks the protective lining of internal organs and is most commonly caused by asbestos exposure — and decided to return to France. He had forwarded everything he could, he told Laurenti and her husband, but still needed a U.S. address. He asked the Laurentis if he could use them as a forwarding address. The Laurentis agreed.
“We thought, ‘Fine,’ but, oh my gosh, he gets a lot of mail,” Kristen Laurenti said.
Over the years, Laurenti would occasionally get mail from lawyers saying they could help Vinçon get his money. Until Friday’s mail arrived with an official notice from the state Controller’s Office, she never had heard a word from California officials about the cash.
Vinçon died a few months after he returned to his native France. It’s unclear whether his relatives even know about the cash. Laurenti and her husband eventually moved to Madera County, and that is the address the controller’s office has for Vinçon. In reality, he never lived in Madera County.
Using an interpreter, Kristen Laurenti talked on the telephone to Vinçon’s sister, but that was years ago, not long after she learned Vinçon had died. She hasn’t spoken to any of his family since.
In the Valley, big money goes unclaimed
Vinçon is one of thousands of central San Joaquin Valley people and businesses who have unclaimed property. In Fresno County alone, the total is almost $44.5 million in cash, a sum that doesn’t include securities and safe-deposit box contents. In Tulare County, it is close to $16 million.
In February, a report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office said the state is getting better at reuniting the property with its rightful owners, but also said the unclaimed property law “creates an incentive for the state to reunite less property with owners.”
There is no statute of limitations. Rightful owners can claim the property at any time.
The reason? Property still in state hands becomes state revenue. It is now “generating over $400 million in annual revenue” and “is the state General Fund’s fifth-largest revenue source,” according to the LAO report.
Money, according to the state controller’s website, is owed to just about everyone imaginable: courts, cities, school districts, churches and youth soccer and baseball organizations, as well as tens of thousands of people.
It could be a few dollars – for instance, the city of Fresno has $115 in an unclaimed payment from a company – or hundreds of thousands of dollars. One item on the state controller’s website set up for the public to search by their names is for 83 cents. In a few instances, the amount exceeds $1 million.
There is no statute of limitations. Rightful owners can claim the money or property at any time.
The LAO report said the state estimates less than $1 billion of the estimated $7.6 billion will be reunited with its rightful owner.
State Controller Betty Yee took office in January, and spokesman John Hill said outreach to the rightful owners is a department priority. Preliminary numbers for the fiscal year that ended June 30 show that the number of claims paid is up around 27 percent compared to the previous year.
In general, Controller Yee is committed to reuniting properties with their rightful owners.
John Hill, spokesman for state Controller Betty Yee
“In general, Controller Yee is committed to reuniting properties with their rightful owners,” Hill said.
The state Controller’s Office does public service announcements when it can and also has taken steps to make it easier for owners to reclaim assets, officials said.
They point to eClaim, which allows web-based property searches. That was implemented early last year, but only works for claims below $1,000. Still, the state Controller’s Office says around $20.3 million has been returned through this process.
Since Yee took office, efforts are underway to expand the eClaim program. The Controller’s Office also has set up an 800 customer-service telephone number.
Still, there are complaints that the process is cumbersome.
One person went to the eClaim website and entered information – including requests for Social Security and driver’s license numbers – only to be told the process could only be done by mail. The request was for $35. The fine print also says it could take up to 180 days to process a claim.
A challenge is the money budgeted for the program. The state Legislature currently has a $60,000 cap on the amount the Controller’s Office can spend on public outreach for the unclaimed property program, Yee’s office said.
Beyond that, efforts to return the property can be complicated for multiple reasons, the biggest being that the property’s owners have died, leaving it to a rightful heir to undertake the process.
Vinçon’s checking account highlights that issue. He was a bachelor, and his relatives live in France.
Meredith Bingham’s assets: More than $1.1 million still with state
Closer to home is Meredith C. Bingham, who died in 1997. The state is holding more than $63,000 of cash dividends that belong to Bingham. In addition, she left more than 20,000 shares of Exxon/Mobil stock.
The state is required by law to sell the securities, and when it did, the amount held by the state went from nearly $90,000 in stock to more than $1 million in cash.
Bingham also is tied to more than $83,000 in Vectren Corp. stock at a Madera County address. Vectren is an Indiana-based energy holding company.
All of the cash and securities remain unclaimed.
It appears that Bingham was married to James E. Bingham, a successful Indiana lawyer who founded one of the state’s premier law firms a century ago. He died in August 1987 in Fresno.
A timeline on the website of the Indiana law firm Bingham Greenbaum Doll says that in 1977, “founder” James E. Bingham retired from a previous incarnation of the firm “after 63 years of service. He moved to California to go into business with his son.”
At the Madera County address, James E. Bingham Jr. is listed along with Meredith Bingham as rightful owners of the Vectren stock.
Efforts by The Bee to reach James Bingham Jr. or other family members were unsuccessful.
While some rightful owners of money are seemingly hard to reach, or have outdated addresses, others seem to be well aware that the state has their money, but don’t seem to be in any hurry to claim it.
Last October, the website CalNewsroom.com reported that Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin had unclaimed property with the state. At the time, Swearengin was a candidate for state controller – a race she eventually lost – and her campaign consultant brushed off the money because it totaled $16. Today, the amount – money from Swearengin’s pre-mayoral tenure at Fresno State – remains unclaimed.
The city of Fresno, however, has much more in unclaimed property, a total currently more than $5,500.
City spokesman Mark Standriff said Fresno knows about the unclaimed money.
We have a procedure in place to claim those monies.
City of Fresno spokesman Mark Strandriff
“It’s not a surprise,” he said. “It’s a routine part of our business. And yes, we have a procedure in place to claim those monies.”
Standriff said the city makes routine checks of the state controller’s website and files claim paperwork on a quarterly basis — at a minimum.
An assortment of cash
Looking through the state controller’s website brings up an interesting assortment of money being held for Fresno-area entities.
There are three small cash amounts — $6 from Mercury Insurance Services and $10 each from Progressive Choice Insurance and Progressive West Insurance — that appear to be claim payments to Fresno’s California Highway Patrol office.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car sent $305 to the state that is listed as an unclaimed refund for the Fresno Area Chamber of Commerce. Fresno Ag Hardware is owed small amounts, but the controller’s website lists one filing at its old location at the corner of Blackstone and Gettysburg, and another for its current North First Street location.
The Fresno County Superior Court has some unclaimed cash that is listed for a North Palm Avenue location. The court, however, has no office space at that location.
Another — a $70 overpayment refund from a company known as “Cellco Partnership” — is listed for the “Fresno County Police Dept.” There is no such department, and the location where the money was sent is a Clovis apartment. Maybe the money was meant for the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, or the Fresno Police Department? Maybe the occupant of the apartment was a sheriff’s deputy or a Fresno police officer?
It may never be known.
Such things seem largely out of the state’s hands, but the Legislative Analyst’s Office did offer several recommendations in its February report.
It said the state controller could make some administrative changes to improve the process of reuniting property with its rightful owners, but it put most of the onus on the state Legislature.
Among the recommendations: Clarifying the program’s goals by establishing clear performance measures and “putting an increased focus on reuniting unclaimed property with owners…Among these options are a simpler and more efficient property claims process and new outreach efforts to better inform residents and businesses about the program.”