As a longtime member of electric, telephone, and food cooperatives, Renee Beasley Jones is proof that it’s a good idea to give your co-op your new address each time you move.
Over the years, the communications and public relations manager at Kenergy in Henderson, Ky., has relocated several times to different states for her former husband’s job.
“We always let co-ops know where we moved because sooner or later, we would get our checks,” she says.
Those checks are retired capital credits—previously allocated financial margins given to co-op members.
“I lovingly call each check that followed me ‘found money.’ It was a delight to open the mailbox,” Jones says. “I remember one check was large enough to buy a table and chairs for a patio at a house we bought after moving to Iowa from North Dakota.”
In a perfect world, former members would notify their co-ops each time they move. But people get busy, and if they move a lot, the task could fall between the cracks. It’s an issue that several co-ops have taken up: claiming the unclaimed.
Billing/Collections Supervisor Carol Krumlauf at Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Grawn, Mich., has combed through websites, social media sites, and data search software to unearth former members with about $550,000 in unclaimed capital credits since 2013.
“Getting it in people’s hands emphasizes that being a cooperative member is different than being a customer of an investor-owned utility,” says Krumlauf, a 32-year employee. “It’s a way to say ‘thank you’ to our members for being a part of our cooperative family, even if it’s in the past.”
Detective Skills a Plus
Boards of directors at each electric co-op decide if and when to retire capital credits. Nationwide, since 1990, co-ops have retired nearly $13 billion to members, according to an NRECA analysis.
The search for long-lost members can require endurance and good detective skills.
“Every time we retire, more names are added, and every time we ‘escheat,’ names are removed,” Krumlauf says, referring to the practice of reverting property—in this case, money—to the state when it is unclaimed.
Her investigative approach might not work for every co-op, but Krumlauf sifts through co-ops’ membership databases for intelligence on the former member: a birthdate, an old address, a previous employer, or other details. Any findings are clues used in online searches for business names; county property records for addresses of seasonal accounts; or state and local government sites of unclaimed property, to name a few.
Intelius, a data search software package, has helped find former members. Krumlauf likes Legacy.com too.
“When I am going through the unclaimed list, I find people who have passed away, and I try to locate the next of kin to request any unclaimed capital credits,” Krumlauf says. “They may also have future capital credits that could also be retired at that time.”
Putting in 'Extra Effort'
Bon Homme Yankton Electric in Tabor, S.D., has returned about $9,800 in unclaimed capital credits in the last 12 months by cranking out snail mail to former members and publishing missing-persons lists in co-op publications and legal notices in the local newspaper.
“We go to the extra effort to contact families instead of waiting for them to contact us,” says Nicole Einrem, the co-op’s office manager. “If we are aware a member has passed away and we have contact information for someone to represent the estate or family, we send a packet to them. We also send reminders to the estate contact before doing a general retirement if no one has officially claimed the capital credits.”
For cases involving uncashed checks, Einrem follows up with letters to addresses in the co-op’s membership database.
“If the post office returns the letter, now we know. If not, they may have simply lost or had not cashed their check for another reason,” she says.
'Do We Owe You Money?'
At Tipmont REMC in Linden, Ind., a banner on the co-op’s website says it all: “Do We Owe You Money?”
“I thought that would be an attention-getter,” says Rob Ford, the co-op’s communication director.
The site has a real-time search feature where members can find out if they have retired capital credits and, if so, the amount. Another click allows them to claim previously unclaimed retirements.
“It’s worked out very well,” Ford says. “Members are able to initiate the claim on their schedule, and the information sent to our staff is more complete, making the verification process easier.”
Under the 1995 federal Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, retired capital credits are presumed abandoned if unclaimed by the owner within a period between one and seven years.
“Some but not all states have enacted the uniform act or a similar or successor act,” says Ty Thompson, NRECA vice president and deputy general counsel for director and member legal services.
Legal requirements for locating former members and notifying them of unclaimed capital credits retirements vary by state, he adds, as do the actual practices used. And while one practice may work for one co-op, it may not work for another.
“We are not aware of a national standard or best practice for locating or notifying former members,” Thompson says.
And then there’s the issue of what ultimately happens to unclaimed capital credits. Statutes in 34 states permit electric cooperatives or their charitable entities to retain unclaimed capital credits, with some limiting use of those funds. In the other 13 states where co-ops operate, there are no such statutes, and the unclaimed capital credits escheat to the state.
A 'Wonderful Gift'
Co-op employees say it can be hard to explain to members why their electric utility is sending them money.
When Krumlauf sends a letter to former Cherryland Electric members asking them to verify information, she notes the amount of the unclaimed capital credits to avoid confusion.
“People are just really surprised that we would look for them,” she says. “And very thankful.”
The check that helped Kenergy’s Jones buy the patio furniture? That came from a telephone cooperative in Hazen, N.D., where Jones had been a member from 1981 to 1994.
“I still have the patio furniture,” Jones says. “Capital credits are wonderful.”