Abandoned property refers to any personal property 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 and 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, an individual who finds abandoned property can claim it if they take certain definite steps such as taking it to their home or putting a sign on the property which indicates their ownership.
However, often when you find abandoned property, it is difficult to figure out whether the owner left it there intentionally or unintentionally.
If it is possible to identify the owner, the law requires that you attempt to return it. For example, if you found an item in a restaurant or movie theater, you should ask the owner if someone misplaced the item and asked about the lost item.
In many states you also may be required to leave the found property with law enforcement for a period of time before you can claim it as your own.
However, if you have followed the procedures in your state for attempting to identify the owner of the property and notifying them of its discovery and if the owner does not come forward, then you may be entitled to keep the property. If the owner only comes much later to claim ownership, they need to have a legally sufficient explanation for why they did not claim the property sooner.
The National Conference of Commissioners has promulgated the Uniform Unclaimed Property Act and most states have adopted different versions of it. This act was meant to deal with the issue of unclaimed property such as abandoned bank accounts, unpresented checks and unclaimed utility deposits.
The states which have adopted some version of this act operate unclaimed property funds where 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, the money becomes the property of the state.
There is a distinction between lost property and mislaid property under the common law. Lost property is any personal property which was unintentionally left by its true owner. Whereas mislaid property is any personal property which was intentionally set down by its owner and then forgotten.
For example, if a card falls out of someone’s pocket, it is considered to be lost property but if a card is accidentally left on a table in a restaurant, then it is considered to be mislaid property.
Anyone who found lost personal property can keep it until and unless the original owner comes forward and 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.
However, mislaid property typically goes to the owner of the property where it was found. For example, 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 principle 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 the property.
Property laws are complex and the rules can vary by jurisdiction. In this context, it would be beneficial to consult with a local civil lawyer who can help you understand the relevant property laws in your locality or state.
Last Modified: 07-18-2018 03:19 PM PDTLaw Library Disclaimer
We've helped more than 4 million clients find the right lawyer – for free. Present your case online in minutes. LegalMatch matches you to pre-screened lawyers in your city or county based on the specifics of your case. Within 24 hours experienced local lawyers review it and evaluate if you have a solid case. If so, attorneys respond with an offer to represent you that includes a full attorney profile with details on their fee structure, background, and ratings by other LegalMatch users so you can decide if they're the right lawyer for you.