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Laws for Lost, Mislaid, and Abandoned Items

Cite this article as: Jason Mance Gordon, "Laws for Lost, Mislaid, and Abandoned Items," in The Business Professor, updated January 8, 2015, last accessed March 29, 2020, https://thebusinessprofessor.com/knowledge-base/laws-for-lost-mislaid-and-abandoned-items/.
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Ownership of Lost or Mislaid Items
This video explains ownership rights in lost, misplaced, or forgotten property.

Next Article: Adverse Possession – Explained

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Lost, Mislaid & Abandoned Items 

These include situations in which an individual loses ownership rights to another person.

Lost Items – Things that are lost may also acquire a new owner through possession. Most states have a statutory procedure in place for establishing ownership rights in lost property. These statutes generally require that the lost property be advertised for a period of time in an effort to notify the original owner. If, however, the original owner fails to claim the lost item, ownership rights vest in the individual who found the item. The purpose of such statutes is to avoid the situation where no one owns or makes beneficial use of lost items. Without following this procedure, the finder of the lost property obtains limited ownership rights through possession, which may always be subject to challenge by the original owner.

Mislaid Items – These are items that are lost or left behind by an individual. It commonly arises when someone leaves clothing or accessories behind in a store or restaurant. The owner of the location where the item was left becomes the guardian of the property until retrieved. After a reasonable amount of time without the owner coming to claim the item, the guardian of the property may follow the statutory procedure to establish ownership rights. In the absence of following a procedure to establish ownership, the holder has limited ownership rights simply by possession.

Abandonment – Mislaid or lost property may be deemed “abandoned”. If a mislaid or lost item is abandoned, the finder may retain the item and claim ownership. The key attribute is that the original owner must demonstrate “an unequivocal intent to abandon the property”. Intent can be inferred from conduct, such as stopping looking for it, permanently leaving the geographic area, etc.

Discussion: Do you agree with this treatment of lost or mislaid items? Why or why not? What would be an alternative approach to dealing with ownership rights in lost or mislaid property?

Practice Question: Tamara finds a valuable diamond ring laying on the sidewalk. She takes it home and puts it in her jewelry box. Years later, she gives it to her daughter as a present. One day, her daughter is approached by a stranger who claims that she was the original owner of the ring when it was lost. If the stranger’s claims are true, who has ownership of the ring?

Proposed Answer

  • Personal property is considered to be lost if the owner has involuntarily parted with it and is ignorant of its location. Mislaid property is that which the owner intentionally places somewhere with the idea that he will eventually be able to find it again but subsequently forgets where it has been placed. Lost or mislaid property continues to be owned by the person who lost or mislaid it. That is, the original owner still has a claim of right to the property. When one finds lost goods, the finder is entitled to possession against everyone with the exception of the true real owner. That is, the finder has an inferior claim of title to the property. The owner of the place where an article is mislaid has a right to the article against everyone but the true owner. However, the finder is expected to make an announcement of the found goods and continue keeping the goods until the true owner comes. The true owner is expected to repossess the goods within a limited amount of time. Failure of the true owner to claim the goods within a reasonable period of time can cause ownership rights to be transferred to the finder. The question generally turns on whether the original owner continues to search for and never abandons their claim of write in the goods. In the example, Tamara found the ring and kept it for years there without anyone claiming it. The question becomes, did Tamara announce having found the ring to the public (such as publication in a newspaper). If the original owner can show that she continued to search for the lost property for years, she maintains her superior claim of right above Tamara (and thus Tamara’s daughter). Thus, she can likely sue Tamara’s daughter for conversion and reclaim the ring.

Academic Research

Simeone, Joseph J., ‘Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers’ – Finding ‘Lost’ Property in Missouri a Judicial and Statutory Analysis (November 2008). Saint Louis U. Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2008-12. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1301597 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1301597

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