Abandoned Personal Property Laws

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 What is Abandoned Property?

Before discussing abandoned property, it is helpful to discuss how the law defines property, especially personal property. The legal definition of personal property is “anything other than land that may be subject to ownership.” As such, the defining characteristic of personal property is that it is movable. This is in contrast to real property or real estate, which cannot be moved.

Personal property can be categorized as either tangible or intangible. Tangible property refers to any personal property that can be physically handled, such as clothes, jewelry, furniture, etc. Intangible personal property refers to property that cannot be physically handled, such as stocks, trust fund accounts, etc. Personal property may also be referred to as chattel. 

Abandoned property refers to any personal property that is left by an owner who has intentionally relinquished all rights to its control. When property is intentionally abandoned, it belongs to no one until it is found. When it is found, the title (ownership) transfers to whoever finds it and possesses it with the intent to take ownership. 

Under common law principles, any person who finds abandoned property may claim that property, if they take specific steps. Some examples of such steps could be taking the property to their home, or putting a sign on the property which indicates their ownership.

A common example of abandoned personal property is when renters leave behind items when moving to a new home. Many people may leave behind furniture they do not wish to move, or mattresses that they do not know what to do with. Abandoned property is especially prevalent near college campuses, as students often leave personal property after their classes end and they return home. 

What Are the Rules Regarding Abandoned Property?

Often, when you find abandoned property, it is difficult to determine whether the owner left it there intentionally or unintentionally. Additionally, each state may have differing laws regarding how abandoned personal property is to be handled. Generally speaking, if it is possible to identify the owner, the law requires that you attempt to return the property to the owner. 

An example of this would be if you found an item in a restaurant or movie theater. You should ask the owner of the restaurant or movie theater if someone misplaced the item and has asked about the lost item.

In many states, you may also be required to leave the found property with law enforcement for a period of time before you may claim it as your own. However, if you have followed all of your state’s procedures, and if the owner does not come forward, then you may be entitled to keep the property for yourself. If the owner comes forward  at a much later date to claim ownership, they will need to have a legally sufficient explanation as to why they did not claim the property sooner.

Personal property is generally considered to be abandoned when it is found in a place where the property’s true owner intended to leave it, but is in such a condition that it is apparent that the owner has no intention of returning to claim the property. Some states maintain statutes which determine that specific types of abandoned personal property escheat; or, they become property of the estate. Some of the most common examples of such property include cars, wrecked ships, and wrecked aircraft.

According to U.S. law, property that is left behind by a tenant is typically assumed to be abandoned after a specific timeframe. This timeframe can be anywhere between one week and one year. If the property remains unclaimed during this timeframe, it may be disposed of, or sold in order to recoup storage costs. Some states have determined that the difference may be kept by the landlord; other states have determined that the property must be returned to the tenant, while other states require that the property is to be turned over to the state or county.

Are There Any Laws That Govern Abandoned Property?

As previously mentioned, the laws that govern abandoned property will vary from state to state. The National Conference of Commissioners has produced the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act. Most states have adopted different versions of it. However, it is important to note that as of 2016, the Act was not yet law. 

All but a few states have statutes regarding unclaimed property that are based on one of four prior versions of the uniform act. Two states that do not have such statutes are New York and Delaware. This act was meant to address the issue of unclaimed property, such as abandoned bank accounts, unpresented checks, and unclaimed utility deposits.

States that have adopted some version of this act operate unclaimed property funds. Under these funds, abandoned or unclaimed proceeds are deposited and held for a specified period of time. Some states hold the money indefinitely, while other states set a time limit. After the time limit has passed, the money becomes the property of the state.

It is important to consult with a local attorney if you have any questions regarding the law on abandoned property. As you can see, there are many factors to consider in terms of differing state laws.

How Long Before Property Is Considered Abandoned?

The process for claiming an abandoned property is, sometimes, as simple as claiming the clearly abandoned property as your own. An example of this would be if someone puts a couch on their curb with a “free” sign. Someone else wishes to claim the couch, so they load it up and take it home with them. Some processes may be more complicated when the abandoned property is something more complex, such as a vehicle abandoned on the side of the road.

When determining whether to grant possession of the abandoned property to the finder of said property, a court will generally consider the type of item as well as where it was found. This is done in order to determine whether the finder of the abandoned property actually has a right to the item.

Generally speaking, personal property that has been abandoned or lost will be given to the finder. This is not true if the item is found at a residence which is occupied by the owner. If an employee finds an item over the course of their employment, the item belongs to the employer.

What Is the Difference Between Lost vs. Mislaid Property?

Under common law, there are notable differences between lost property and mislaid property. Lost property refers to any personal property that has been unintentionally left by its true owner. Alternatively, mislaid property refers to any personal property which was intentionally set down by its owner, and was then forgotten.

An example of this would be if a bank card falls out of someone’s pocket. It is considered to be lost property. However, if a bank card is accidentally left on a table in a restaurant, then it is considered to be mislaid property.

Anyone who found lost personal property may keep the property, until and unless the original owner comes forward. This applies whether the lost property was discovered in a public area, or whether it was discovered in the property of the individual who found it. Mislaid property is generally returned to the owner of the property where it was found. An example of this would be if you found a bag in the street, you may keep it; but, if you found a bag in a restaurant, the owner of the restaurant may have a better claim to the bag.

The basic reasoning behind this distinction is that owners of mislaid property are more likely to remember where their property is, compared to owners of lost property. Allowing property owners to keep the mislaid property makes it easier for the true owner to recover their property.

Should I Contact a Lawyer Near Me?

If you have any issues involving abandoned personal property, you should consult with a skilled and knowledgeable property lawyer in your area. An experienced and local property attorney can inform you of your state’s laws governing abandoned personal property, as well as what your rights and obligations are. Finally, an attorney can also represent you in court as needed.


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