Hundreds of thousands of dollars, perhaps millions, due to churches across the land are sitting in unclaimed property accounts with government agencies.
It’s all part of the millions upon millions of dollars in cash that belongs to individuals, companies, nonprofits and faith groups, that somehow didn’t reach them, and ended up in government unclaimed property accounts.
When people learn about unclaimed property, they often search government websites for their names and the names of family members, but they don’t think to check for money owed their churches. People of faith, consider this a public service announcement: Search for your church on your state’s unclaimed property website.
The amounts belonging to individual churches range from a few dozen dollars to thousands. The money likely came from donations, utility deposits, vendor payments and other checks that somehow went astray over the years.
How, you ask?
“I’d imagine, especially with nonprofits and church groups, a lot of the business is oftentimes handled by volunteers or people who may not be CPAs, handling books, especially for some smaller organizations, and things can get missed,” said Bryant Clayton, assistant director of unclaimed property division for the Texas Comptroller, which returned a record $309 million in unclaimed property in the last fiscal year.
Sometimes churches shut down, move or change names, and checks don’t find their way to the proper recipients. Other situations are head-scratchers.
A search of the Texas unclaimed property website using the term “First Baptist” returns hundreds of entries for institutions big and small.
A search of the Texas unclaimed property website using the term “First Baptist” returns hundreds of entries for institutions big and small, from Marfa to Longview and stops in between. Many entries show payments from utility companies attempting to return deposits or make other types of repayments.
How does a utility know which meter to turn off for lack of payment, but cannot find that same customer to return a deposit? You might just as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Another type of check that often goes astray is mailbox money from oil and gas companies related to mineral rights and land access. Some faith institutions sit on oil and gas deposits, and some may receive donations in the form of mineral rights.
How are oil and gas companies able to scour courthouse documents to find every last mineral owner to gain permission to drill a new well, but the same folks cannot check the internet to find a church address to send payment? Unravel that question and you are ready to tackle the mysteries of the holy Trinity.
There are payments sitting in the Texas Comptroller’s account from all sorts of vendors, office supply companies, cable providers, book publishers, retail gift cards and many entries that don’t name the origin of the money. How it works is, a company attempts to pay a church or anyone else, but the check isn’t cashed. After a certain amount of time, (in Texas it’s three years,) the payer must turn over the check to the government to hold for the recipient in perpetuity.
So those readers who await the rapture might feel special urgency to claim the funds.
Start here, with the FDIC’s list of links to each state’s unclaimed property websites.
Then, it’s critical to identify the person at the church or, in some cases, the diocese or denomination, with the authority to make the claim, and to provide the documents to prove it. For individual claims, a driver’s license or ID is often enough, and the claim can be processed right away. But for nonprofits, the state agency handling the claim will need documentation, such as the church charter, to prove the claim is legitimate.
As Clayton at the Texas comptroller’s office said: “There are a lot of churches called First Baptist.”
Several churches with significant unclaimed property were contacted for this article, but none responded. Perhaps they are following Jesus’ advice to not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing, or maybe they don’t like reporters very much, both fair.
But if the disinterest reflects a schedule too busy to bother with small amounts of cash, let us recall the parable of the widow’s mite and show respect for even small amounts of church funds.
Elizabeth Souder is a freelance writer based in Dallas.