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Accession and Confusion: Gain Title to Another's Belongings

Normally, if you take the belongings of another, you are guilty of conversion and may have to give the belongings back to the original owner or or repay the owner for the value of those goods. There are, however, some exceptions to this general rule, meaning that in some cases you may be able to gain title to someone else's belongings. These exceptions are accession and confusion.

What Is Accession?

Accession of goods may occur in two different ways:

  • the first is when you take the goods or belongings of another and improve them or increase their value by the use of additional materials and/or your own labor.  This might happen when you take a raw material, for example wool, and make a finished product (cloth) with it.  Even though you took someone else's wool to begin with, you may acquire title to the finished product by accession.
  • the second way that accession could occur is where you have made alterations or changes to someone else's personal property.  If, in changing the property, you have transformed it into something else entirely (like wool to cloth) or if you have greatly improved the property, you may acquire title by accession.

In some jurisdictions, a distinction will be made between whether or not you knowingly took the belongings of another.  This may mean that you will only be able to obtain title to a finished product where you innocently took someone else's property.  If you knew that it belonged to the other person to begin with, you will not be able to obtain title, no matter how impressive your improvement of the article.  

What Is Confusion?

Confusion allows you to acquire title to property that has been inseparably intermingled with your own belongings in such a way that it is impossible to determine which party involved in the claim is the rightful owner.  Confusion generally only applies when it is too difficult to separate out goods by their owners or where collection of goods as a whole creates something new, making each person involved a partial owner of the whole, regardless of whose fault it is that the goods became so mixed up in the first place. 

The doctrines of accession and confusion are not accepted by all states.  Some states, like California, have adopted a different policy to protect both parties--the original owner and the innocent improver, by allowing the original owner to reclaim his property, regardless of how improved it might be, as long as he reimburses the second party for their labor in making the improvements.  

Should I Contact a Property Attorney?

If you have been accused of, or are being sued for, conversion of someone else's property, and you believe that an accession or confusion has really occurred, an experienced property lawyer will be able to assist you with any claims that may be brought against you. 

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-27-2018 10:58 PM PDT

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