Personal property may be intentionally abandoned by its owner, but it is more frequently lost or simply forgotten. Common law looks to the passage of time as one factor in determining whether an owner meant to abandon property, but it does not establish specific time lines before lost or forgotten property is deemed abandoned. State statutes establish the length of time before some property, like cars, bank accounts or a tenant's possessions, can be seized or sold.
Tenants who abandon a lease, or who are evicted, often leave personal property behind. State rental laws establish a process that the landlord must follow before disposing of tenant property. For example, New Mexico law requires landlords to store a tenant's personal property and provide written notice allowing the former tenant at least 30 days to reclaim the property, according to the University of New Mexico Judicial Education Center. After 30 days, the landlord still does not have full ownership of the property but may sell it and send the money, if more than $100, to the former tenant. Most states' laws have similar provisions. The passage of time never converts the property ownership to the landlord.
State statutes establish the length of time after which vehicles such as a car, truck or boat that have been left unattended may be considered abandoned. Under Virginia law, for example, Virginia towns and cities may seize cars left unattended for 10 days. If the owner does not show up within 30 days, the vehicle can be sold at public auction. The town must hold on to the proceeds for three years, at which point they become town property, according to a report by attorney K. Reed Mayo in the "William and Mary Law Review." Other states have similar laws, though the time lines may vary.
All states have adopted some form of the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act regarding inactive financial assets like bank accounts, certificates of deposit or safe deposit box contents, according to the American Bar Association. Each state's version of this law sets a length of time -- typically three to five years -- after which an inactive financial asset is deemed unclaimed property. After that period, the financial institution that holds the asset must make attempts to contact the owner, and if the owner does not respond, it must turn the asset over to the state. Most states then publicly post these financial assets for a period, after which the asset is deemed abandoned and becomes the property of the state.
State statutes establish the steps a finder of lost cash or personal items must take to attempt to return the property to its owner, including the length of time that must elapse before the finder can use or sell the property. For example, Missouri law requires a finder of lost property to report it to the county court, wait 40 days, then publish notice of finding the property in a public newspaper for three weeks. Ownership passes to the finder a year later if the original owner does not show up to claim it, according to St. Louis University Law School Professor Emeritus Joseph J. Simeone.
- Texas A&M University Real Estate Center; Abandonment of Property; Judon Fambrough; September 1999
- Cornell University Law School Faculty Working Papers; The Illusory Right to Abandon; Eduardo M. Penalver; July 2009
- University of New Mexico Judicial Education Center: Property Left On Premises by Tenant
- "William and Mary Law Review"; Virginia's Acquisition of Unclaimed and Abandoned Property; K. Reed Mayo; 1986
- "St. Louis University Law Journal"; Finders Keepers Losers Weepers: The Law of Finding "Lost" Property in Missouri; Joseph J. Simeone; 2009
- American Bar Association; Unclaimed Property; July 2005
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