Delaware’s unclaimed property gambit: Small state … Big bucks.

The state of Delaware is serious about collecting unclaimed property at corporations.The state of Delaware has a reputation for being very friendly to corporations. And that’s not just talk, because there are more corporations registered in Delaware than in any other state.

In fact, more than half of all publicly listed U.S. companies have chosen to incorporate in Delaware.

But it turns out that there’s another side to the coin: This “business friendly” state is also ruthless about going after the unclaimed property that these corporations possess.

Companies that are incorporated in Delaware are obligated to turn over all unclaimed monetary property to the state. And the state is relentless in pursuing those funds.

For unclaimed dividends and securities, the Delaware law kicks in after three years. For other unclaimed property such as gift certificate balances and life insurance benefits, the state claims possession after five years.

There’s criticism, of course. Many contend that Delaware is unduly onerous in its unclaimed property dictates when compared to other states.

Chances are, such criticism falls on deaf ears. Why? I like what Chris Hopkins, a lawyer with Crowe Horwath LLP, says about the situation: “Unclaimed property is crack for the state of Delaware,” he contends.

And how much is the unclaimed property worth? Estimates are that Delaware has collected more than $1.2 billion in property, interest and penalties in just the past three years. The state uses the proceeds it collects to conduct state business – just as it would using state income tax revenues.

And woe to any company that neglects to keep proper tabs on its unclaimed property, because Delaware looks back more than 30 years when it conducts audits.

How many companies have robust records going back that far?

No records? No problem! The state will cheerfully estimate the amount your company owes – along with all of the accrued interest and penalties, of course. And they’ll accept your payment with a smile.

But there’s been enough grumbling about the record-keeping requirements that the state has grudgingly initiated a “temporary voluntary disclosure program,” wherein companies can make a good faith effort to identify unclaimed property dating back to “only” 1996.

If companies can show that they aren’t hiding any problems, the state will forego further auditing back into prior years.

Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock stated this about the new voluntary program: “There was a recognition that we had to come up with a better system to meet the ultimate goal, which is to have companies in compliance.”

So which goal is it?  Companies in compliance? … Or a cool billion in added revenues for the state’s coffers?

You know the answer.

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