Old Stock Certificates: Lost Treasure Or Wallpaper?
Have you ever found or inherited acertificate for a company? What if you’ve never heard of the company before? Well, here we go over how you can find out whether you were left a fortune waiting to be claimed, or just a piece of paper ready for the recycling bin.
Stocks in Physical Form
The happening upon oldcertificates is actually more common than you might think. In the past, investors received physical certificates (referred to as in bearer form) when they bought stock. The problem over old stock certificates doesn’t arise very often anymore because most stocks are kept in electronic form in your broker’s computer system (which is known as in street name).
So, if you find an old certificates it’s important that you know where to start looking to see if your discovery is merely wallpaper from a bankrupt company or a lost treasure. Rather than throwing away the piece of paper that might be your lottery ticket, take the time and do the research.
The Key Pieces of Information
First things first: you need to take a look at a few things on the certificate. Look for the company name and location of incorporation, a CUSIP number (explained in detail below) and the name of the person with whom the security is registered. All of these items are important and can likely be found on the face of the certificate.
If the company still exists, your search ends here. You can go to the library or use the internet to find out exactly what has happened to the company. Yahoo Finance has a good symbol look up tool where you can search the name of the company for its ticker. The problem is that the name probably isn’t the same. Unless your company is a household name, like General Electric, chances are that at some point the company either was bought out or changed its name due to a merger.
This piece of information provides a vital piece of information for searching out a security; it’s like stock DNA. Each security has a unique and individual number (the CUSIP), and changes and splits are recorded accordingly. That is, every time a stock decides to change its name, split or do anything that will affect its stock certificate, a new number is assigned to it. By doing a search starting from the original number, we can find out the final/current equivalent of the security. Outside North America, other numbering systems are used, such as SEDOL or ISIN.
Most large discount brokerages are able to help clients track down securities that are defunct for over 10 years. With the CUSIP number the brokerage will be able to uncover all splits, reorganizations and name changes that have occurred throughout the life of the company. It will also be able to tell you whether the company is still trading or out of business.
Location of Incorporation
Should the previous two methods of searching for a company not pan out, the location of incorporation provides you with a last resort. Each stock is incorporated in a state, and the records are kept at a central location. Generally, incorporation will have to go through the Secretary of the State, and the name of the business will be documented in their databases. You should be able to contact the Secretary of the State and find out more information about your certificate. Keep in mind that a fee is usually charged for this service.
If you have been successful in finding all this information, you will need to locate the name of the transfer agent. The easiest method for this is to contact the company and ask it directly. You can usually find the number of the company or the name of the transfer agent on the company’s website. Generally, publicly listed corporations have an investor-relations link on their sites.
The main reason that you need to go to a transfer agent is that companies rarely handle their own securities personally. They will rather have another company take care of the bookkeeping and issuing of securities. The transfer agent will have a record of the name of the person on the stock certificate; ownership can then be transferred to your name. This can be done many different ways; however, it’s always best to contact the transfer agent and request instructions. Many of them are extremely picky.
If the company is no longer public, your search ends. In this case, there may be some legal repercussions, and you will need to speak to a lawyer. If the company has in fact changed names, merged, split, reversed split, reorganized, restructured or undergone any combination of these, you might have something to work with.
The Importance of Documentation
In the instance that you are inheriting some securities, ensure that the individual whose name is on the certificate has bequeathed it to you. A probated will with the necessary signatures of the executors may be required by the transfer agent before it will transfer ownership.
Once the certificates have been delivered back to you in your name, you are finished. Now you can deposit them with a broker and sell them accordingly.
Conclusion: Have Someone Else Do the Work for You
For those of you who have gone through all of these tips without any success, there are other means by which you can have your old stock certificates researched.
Some of the companies listed above may also publish or help you find stock guides that may help you on your investigation of an old stock. (From Investopedia)
Feel free to contact PPM.net for more information on CUSIP and Stock Look Ups.