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How can I locate bonds that were purchased by my mom?

My mom died a couple of years ago. Back in 1988 she gave me a couple of zero-coupon bonds with a maturity date of 2018. I don’t remember ever receiving any certificates for the bonds. I was recently reminded of this gift, though, and I contacted the bank in Denver where she indicated the bonds were held. The bank said they could not do anything unless I produced the appropriate certificates. Since I do not have any certificates and did not find anything in her bank deposit box, can you offer any suggestions and/or advice on how to proceed? My mom was both honest and frugal—I am certain she purchased these on my behalf. — Nancy, Portland, Ore.

You’re going to have to play detective if there’s any hope of locating your bonds, particularly since you don’t know the bonds’ issuer.

First, carefully review your mom’s files for clues.  If you can’t find a trade confirmation, which should have the bonds’ CUSIP (identity number) or a financial statement listing the bonds, then at least try to locate paperwork indicating brokerage firms where your mom held her accounts. Contact those firms and have them check their computerized records.

We know the bonds are 30-year zero coupon securities, since you mentioned that your mom purchased them in 1988 and they mature in 2018. Odds are the issuer is a government entity, either the federal government or a municipality, as these are the most popular zero coupons among individual investors. Your best bet is that they’re 30-year zero coupon U.S. Treasury bonds, particularly since the Treasury stopped issuing 30-year bonds as paper certificates in 1986, in favor of electronic, book-entry format.

“Because the bonds were never issued as a piece of paper, presumably that’s why she can’t recall ever seeing the certificates, ” says James Conmy of the Depository Trust Clearing Corporation.  “While Treasury securities normally pay interest every six months, because these were zero-coupon bonds, there will be no interest payments until the bonds mature. Presumably, that’s why she can’t recollect receiving any interest payments.”

Contact the Treasury Department’s Bureau of the Public Debt (304-480-7711). If your mother purchased Treasury bonds through the Government’s Treasury Direct program the Bureau will be able to track the purchase with her social security number. You’ll have to provide your mother’s death certificate along with proof that you are the beneficiary. If she did not buy directly from the government, though, this will be a dead end. “If she bought the Treasury security through a broker-dealer we would not have any records,” says Joyce Harris, Director of Public Legislative Affairs at the Bureau of the Public Debt.

Regarding the bank where you believe your mom left the bonds, The Bank of Denver. It is a small institution that has never been in the business of brokering bonds (and it has no record of your mother’s bonds). “You’re looking for a needle in a haystack. If I had a CUSIP number I could do something,” says Lynn Rolston, vice president of operations at The Bank of Denver. “Without having more information it’s impossible to find.”

Rolston wonders if your mom was referring to Bank One of Denver, which was swallowed by J.P. Morgan Chase as part of its takeover of Bank One.  As a major financial institution, Bank One would have sold bonds. It couldn’t hurt to check with Chase in Denver.

Failing all the above paths, there is still hope. The Great Colorado Payback is a state program that returns unclaimed assets to their rightful owners.

“Safe deposit box contents become dormant and must be turned over to the State five years after the rent expires. Once unclaimed property is turned over to the State it is held in the owner’s name in perpetuity, or until it is claimed, “says Patty White, director of the unclaimed property division of the Colorado Department of the Treasury. You may reach Ms. White at (303) 866-6045 or patty.white@state.co.us.

— Allan Chernoff

Got a question for the help desk? Send it to helpdesk@cnnmoney.com.

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