Anyone who was involved in unclaimed property from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s will remember David Epstein. If you came along later, you nonetheless owe it to yourself to learn about him and the many positive impacts that he had on unclaimed property. David, who passed away on December 8 at the age of 82, can reasonably be considered the father of modern-day unclaimed property administration.
In the early 1980s, David left a successful sports and entertainment legal practice and the opportunity to be appointed to the California judiciary to focus exclusively on unclaimed property. He helped to re-establish NAUPA (which had fallen inactive in the 1960s, with its business account reported as unclaimed to the State of Florida), acted as co-reporter for the 1981 Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, authored the legal treatise Unclaimed Property Law and Reporting Forms (which is still published by Matthew Bender), testified before Congress about bank service charges on dormant accounts, wrote numerous amicus briefs as NAUPA special counsel, and acted as an advisor to the World Jewish Congress on abandoned accounts in Swiss banks arising from the Holocaust—along with undertaking numerous other activities.
Among David’s many accomplishments, several are particularly noteworthy. Forty years ago, he crisscrossed the country as consultant to more than 30 states. In this capacity, he created unclaimed property compliance and outreach programs, testified for the adoption of stronger and more modern legislation, and participated in litigation that resulted in significant holdings that established important public policies still functioning today. Along the way, he realized the many benefits from actively (and sometimes even shamelessly) promoting of state unclaimed property programs: owners could recover their rightful assets and, at the same time, elected officials overseeing these programs could recognition. In 1984, David formed the Unclaimed Property Clearinghouse, a multi-state cooperative effort to increase unclaimed property reporting. The forerunner to modern contract audit firms, the Clearinghouse collected hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of all states, significantly increased annual holder reporting, and launched or expanded the careers of many talented men and women, now working at the likes of Kelmar, Kroll, Audit Services, and several holder advocates.
David, who was revered even by holders as “the guru of unclaimed property,” was a fearless advocate and ardent supporter of the states. In David’s view, unclaimed property legislation represented the most important and successful consumer protection law ever enacted. Indeed, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of owners have recovered unclaimed property as a direct or indirect results of David’s efforts. To quote Rick Chivaro, who served as chief counsel to five California State Controllers and who worked closely with David, “[he] was an exceptionally bright and innovative individual who was largely responsible for uniting the individual states in the fight against financial institutions and holders to take control of, and protect, owner’s money. David was brilliant, creative and a force to be reckoned with. No one that knew him could ever question his passion or drive to do the right thing.” Michael Fitzgerald, who is currently completing his 10th term as Iowa State Treasurer and who collaborated with David to create “The Great Iowa Treasure Hunt” in 1983, cites David as “the pioneer” in unclaimed property, and credits him with the states “legally collecting billions” in lost assets.
In 2007, David endowed the David J. Epstein Program in Public Interest Law and Policy at his alma mater, the UCLA School of Law. That program has since had over 500 graduates, who serve in government, nonprofits, the judiciary, and the private sector. In 2000, David received the NAUPA Lifetime Achievement Award, the organization’s highest honor.
While much has changed in unclaimed property over the last 20 years, the framework under which the states operate is attributable to those who came before us. Today, those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him reflect with gratitude (and some amazement) on the contributions of David Epstein, one of the giants in our field.
– Authored by Lynden Lyman, the Unclaimed Advisor