It’s not uncommon for heirs to stumble across old stock certificates when disposing of an estate. What should you do with them?
If the stock is for a recognized company that’s still in business, your task is relatively easy. If there’s no cancellation stamp on the certificate, any brokerage can cash it in for you (but you’ll need to provide the necessary paperwork proving you inherited it).
If you don’t recognize the company name and can’t find it online, then you have some work to do. We’ll help you get started.
Certain information will help your search. Every stock has a CUSIP number. CUSIP stands for Committee on Uniform Securities Identification Procedures. If the company has been merged, or if a stock split occurred, it will have a new CUSIP. You also need the name of the individual as it appears on the stock certificate.
Many stocks today do not issue certificates. All of the information is computerized. But CUSIP numbers and the owner’s name still exist and will get you a long way.
The first place to go is your broker. Many brokers will do free research that can answer your questions. Even if you don’t have an account, brokers often will do the work for you. They can profit if the certificates have value and you’re eager to sell.
Public libraries have numerous resources. A good reference librarian should be able to steer you to old stock guides and databases.
If you know or can determine the state in which the company was incorporated, you can contact the secretary of state. States retain ownership records and usually will help you for free, or for a small charge.
In the case of Washington state, an online visit to the secretary of state's website will lead you to corporations both dead and alive, and also links to outside resources.
As a last resort, you can pay a company to do the work for you. One of the major ones is OldCompany.com, an affiliate of Scripophily.com. The fee is $39.95 per search, but there’s no charge if they don’t find any information about your stock.
Scripophily is a term for the hobby of collecting old stock certificates. Companies such as Scripophily.com are eager to help, in hopes that if the certificate is valuable, they can sell it or auction it at a profit.
Some stock certificates are collectible because they have a famous name on them. Others are valuable for their design. For example, Walt Disney company certificates often fetch prices as high as $100 because of their colorful artwork. And only a few weeks ago, Disney said it no longer will use certificates.
Moving to a total electronic format likely will make old certificates even more valuable.
Whatever you do, don’t throw out any old certificates without doing some research first. Even if the stock is worthless, the certificate itself may be a valuable collectible.