Authored by: Alena Levitz, B.A., LL.B, LL.M, Executive Director British Columbia Unclaimed Property Society
Japan launched its first unclaimed property program this year following the passage of the Dormant Deposit Utilization Act in December 2016. The program utilizes funds from dormant bank accounts that have been inactive for ten years or more to finance social welfare activities supporting children and young adults, people facing severe financial constraints, and to champion the revitalization of local communities. The Japanese government estimates there is approximately 70 billion yen in dormant assets in the country and anticipates allocating 3 billion yen to address social issues this year through the newly created Japan Network for Public Interest Activities (JANPIA) (www.janpia.or.jp/en/).
Last spring, the Japanese government hosted the International Symposium on Utilizing Dormant Accounts for Social Issues. The event brought together unclaimed property representatives from Canada, Ireland, and the UK to discuss best practices on using dormant assets to fund social causes, as well as a delegate from the United Nations.
The United Kingdom
The UK introduced its unclaimed property program in 2008 with the passage of the Dormant Bank and Building Society Accounts Act. Under this program, unclaimed balances held by banks and building societies that have not been touched for 15 years were deemed dormant if their owners could not be traced. In 2018, the UK government expanded its dormant program to include a wider range of financial assets, covering insurance and pensions, investment and wealth management, and securities sectors. To administer the program, the government established the Dormant Assets Financial Inclusion Organisation – now called Fair4All Finance (https://fair4allfinance.org.uk/) – responsible for deploying £55 million of funding from dormant accounts.
One of the unique aspects of the UK program is that it’s strictly voluntary. Since the UK launched its program, more than £1.2 billion from dormant accounts has been collected with over £660 million allocated to address the complex challenges facing the most vulnerable in society. For example, Big Society Capital, a social investment bank funded through the program, buys properties, which are refurbished and then leased to St. Mungo’s Housing Association. Through this initiative, nearly 1,000 homes have been provided to help families rebuild their lives.
Ireland introduced legislation governing dormant accounts in 2001 covering funds held by all financial institutions, including post office savings accounts, bank deposit accounts, savings bonds and certificates, installment savings and certain life assurance policies. Under the legislation, a dormant account is defined as an account that has not had any activity for 15 years. If the rightful owner cannot be contacted, funds are transferred to the Dormant Accounts Disbursement Board, and eventually to the Social Innovation Fund Ireland (SIF), which administers the money used to support various social causes. Since the fund was established, approximately €1 billion has been recovered from dormant accounts. Of that, approximately €300 million have been reclaimed by account holders.
The Social Innovation Fund (www.socialinnovation.ie) has provided grants and business support to 86 social enterprises in Ireland in keeping with their mandate to support non-profits, charities, and social enterprises and promote social innovation. Every Euro raised by the fund is matched by a Euro from Government through the Department of Rural and Community Development via the Dormant Accounts Fund. One project involved funding the development of FoodCloud’s smartphone app for supermarkets with food nearing its expiration date. The app allows food retailers and charities to communicate about the availability of surplus food, so delivery and collection could be arranged, thereby reducing food waste.
In Canada, only three provinces have unclaimed property programs in place (Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec) covering provincially-regulated companies and financial institutions. Unclaimed property legislation was also recently introduced in New Brunswick on November 27, 2019. Canada’s first unclaimed property was introduced in BC in 1999 with the passage of the BC Unclaimed Property Act. The province’s program is managed by the BC Unclaimed Property Society (http://unclaimedpropertybc.ca), which was established in 2003. The dormancy period for unclaimed funds ranges from one to 10 years depending on the holder and type of funds held. There is also no statute of limitations to claim dormant funds in BC.
Every year, BCUPS transfers a portion of outstanding unclaimed funds to Vancouver Foundation (https://www.vancouverfoundation.ca/), Canada’s largest community foundation, for philanthropic purposes. Since BCUPS’ inception, more than $40 million has been transferred to Vancouver Foundation to address high-priority social issues, such as combatting the opioid crisis, reducing homelessness, and helping young adults successfully transition out of foster care by providing necessary community, education, and housing support and lobbying government for policy changes supporting young people.
Challenges and Opportunities
Every jurisdiction and organization managing dormant accounts faces numerous challenges. Participants from the May 13, 2019 symposium cited awareness and legitimacy among the biggest challenges facing the sector. Companies remitting dormant funds and people claiming money need to have a high level of trust that assets are being managed responsibly, which requires a strong element of transparency and evaluation of the end result. Speakers felt it was important to demonstrate that the funds directed to charity were having a meaningful social impact.
As countries begin to implement and update their dormant asset policies it is imperative that symposiums such as the International Symposium on Utilizing Dormant Accounts for Social Issues take place so countries can learn from one another and share their challenges and best practices.
For more information on escheatment in the U.S., visit this page.