The case of Grandma's 'missing' IRA

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Q: My grandmother handed me some IRA deposit receipts/certificates that belong to herself and my grandfather. My grandfather's certificates are from Chemical Bank and are dated 1983-1987. My grandmother has one receipt dated 1990.  I've called Chase Bank and all a representative could tell me was, "...maybe she could have rolled the monies over into another account..." because he did not see and IRA accounts in either name. 

I would like to know, if you have an IRA account and decide to roll the money over into a different account or withdraw it do you have to give the bank the deposit certificates back?  And if the money has been given to the state, since most of the certificates date back nearly 20 years, is there any way they can get it back? — Danielle, Jersey City, N.J.

A: It’s highly unusual for individual investors to hold a physical Certificate of Deposit, mainly because of the risk that it might be stolen. If, by chance, this is what your grandmother handed you, it’s a negotiable certificate — which means you can present it to the bank or other financial institution that issued it and demand payment.

Since what you received is almost certainly a receipt for the physical document, you need to determine whether the account was, in fact, rolled over to another bank or financial institution. If the rollover happened before the CD matured, the transaction would be handled by the banks involved, and your grandparents wouldn’t have touched the physical CD. If the CDs had matured, the money would have been transferred as cash. So it's highly unlikely that these CDs somehow ended up in your grandmother’s attic — or in the trash by mistake.

Tracking down what happened to grandma's account, though, may not be easy. Federally-chartered banks are only required to keep records for 7 years. And in this case, Chemical Bank merged with Chase in 1995, which was then was gobbled up by J.P. Morgan in 2001. When banks merge, consolidating all those records is notoriously complicated and subject to all kinds of glitches — especially when all those computer systems have to be made to work with each other. But while it's theoretically possible that the bits representing the record of your grandparents' IRA somehow got lost, it's highly unlikely.

If your grandmother's most recent paperwork is dated 1990, it's very possible this account became "dormant" somewhere along the line. “Dormant” doesn’t just mean you haven't make a deposit or withdrawal in a while; it means the bank hasn’t heard from you for years or your monthly statement came back in the mail as undeliverable and it can’t find a new address. The law in each state varies, but if an account is “dormant” for several years, any unclaimed balance is turned over to the state.

So it looks like you have two main threads to pursue in your paper chase:

1) Try again to ask your grandmother about the possibility that this IRA was rolled over. Is there another bank or financial institution where they have accounts? Could the missing IRA have ended up there?  (Is it possible your grandfather rolled these over and your grandmother forgot or wasn’t aware of the transaction?)

2) By all means, check with the missing property office in your state. In New Jersey (this is why we ask readers where you’re from), you can Just enter your grandmother and grandfather’s name and see what comes up. If you find the missing CDs, fill out the claim form available on the Web site and send it to the address listed on the instructions.

You should also check a Web site called which tracks unclaimed property nationwide. And while you’re at it, try a search for your own name too. You never know: if you’ve changed addresses at some point, an there may be a dormant account out there with your name on it.