Abandoned Personal Property

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What Is Abandoned Property?

As a general matter, if a property owner intentionally abandons property, they lose ownership of it. When property is intentionally abandoned, it belongs to nobody until it is found. At that point, title (ownership) transfers to whoever finds it, and takes it with intent to take ownership. This is the general rule created by the common law.

Property is abandoned when the owner deliberately leaves it somewhere with the intent to completely give up ownership. This means that, as a general rule, it belongs to nobody, and can be claimed by the first person to find and take possession of it.

Many states have made some significant modifications to the rule. For example, in many states, under the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act, previous owners may reclaim abandoned property within a certain period of time after abandonment. During this time period, the abandoned property essentially belongs to the state. While the person who finds the property may have the first right to it after the time period expires, and has a superior right of possession against everyone except the original owner, the original owner has a right to reclaim it any time before then.

What Is Lost Property?

Lost property, on the other hand, is property which the owner has accidentally misplaced, without intent to give up ownership. When a person finds lost property, he or she does obtain some rights in it which resemble ownership. He or she has a right to possess the property which is superior to the rights of everyone except the original owner.

For example, suppose that Albert loses a hat on the bus. If Ben finds and takes the hat, it belongs to him as far as everyone, except Albert, is concerned. So, if Ben loses the hat on the subway, and it is found and taken by Charles, Charles “owns” the hat, as far as everyone except Albert and Ben are concerned. Ben’s claim to the hat is superior to that of Charles, and Albert’s claim to the hat is superior to that of Ben.

Is Personal Property Leftover After an Eviction Considered Abandoned?

After an eviction, landlords often find an ex-tenant’s personal property still on the premises. A tenant’s personal property on the premises after an eviction is still considered the tenant’s property. The landlord does not have a legal right to the personal property despite the fact the landlord has possession and title over the building the property was found in.

Before the landlord can keep or throw away the tenant’s property, the landlord should identify and value the property found. The landlord should store the property in a reasonably safe place for the former tenants. The landlord can charge for storage, although the property still belongs to the ex-tenant by right.

After identification and storage, the landlord should give the former tenant(s) notice that the landlord has found and is keeping the personal property. The landlord should release the property to the tenants; storage costs can be collected later, if at all. If the tenant does not collect the properties after a reasonable notice period, the property is considered abandoned. Some states allow landlords to keep the property as their own while other states might require that the landlord auction the property found.

What If the Abandoned Property Is a Building?

If a building is abandoned, the government can seize control of the building through the use of eminent domain. Governments which seize abandoned property can also auction off the property or just replace the old building with a new public one.

If a building is abandoned, a private person can purchase the property by contacting the true owner or the bank which owns the property. If legal ownership is in dispute, local court records can usually settle the matter.

If you purchase abandoned buildings, make sure to note how many building code violations there are. If the number of violations is beyond repair, you may have to demolish the building to keep government officials from giving a flood of fines and citations.  

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Property law is very complex and the rules can vary by jurisdiction. An experienced property attorney can help you understand your state or locality's property laws.  Speaking with the proper property attorney will protect your interests.

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Last Modified: 03-06-2013 04:29 PM PST

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