Lost and Mislaid Property


Property is lost when the owner loses possession by accident, neglect, forgetfulness or any other means and had no intention of abandoning it. "Lost" property is different from property that is left intentionally behind or abandoned.

"Mislaid property" is a result of the owner's forgetfulness-leaving sunglasses on a restaurant table, for example. The distinction between lost and mislaid property hinges on the owner's intent. Lost property occurs because of the owner's neglect, carelessness or inadvertence. An envelope of cash in a public parking lot is lost since there would be no other reason for it to be there except for the owner's carelessness.

The finder of lost property is entitled to possession against everyone except the original owner. Unless provided otherwise by statute, the finder of mislaid property never acquires rights to possession; it is the owner of the premises where the property is mislaid who is entitled to possession against all but the true owner.

Ownership of Lost Property

The original owner never loses ownership of the lost property. However, the general rule is that the finder of lost property can keep it unless the rightful owner demands it back.

To claim back the lost property, the original owner has to prove he owned it at one time. A vehicle's ownership is easily proved through serial numbers. Ownership of lost money, however, is difficult to prove. The original owner generally has no proof except for the circumstances under which the cash was lost and found. For example, a jogger that drops money and watches it blow into a neighbor's yard can prove he owns the money by the circumstances of the "loss."

I lost a watch at a wedding reception that another guest subsequently found. Is she the new owner?

No. Lost property belongs to the person who found it subject to the owner's claim. Additionally, the finder has to make a reasonable effort to find the watch's owner. In this situation you can probably prove you had the watch on earlier, and the finder will have to return it based on your superior claim of ownership.

Sidebar: Losing the property does not mean losing ownership of it. An owner can always assert a claim to her property. The amount of time that passes between losing property and someone finding it is irrelevant. Additionally, the finder who has had the lost property for a long time still must give it back if the true owner claims it.

I hid some jewelry for safekeeping in my parent's house but forgot where I put it. My sister found it and says it belongs to her now. Is she right?

No. The jewelry was not lost; it was mislaid. In other words, you put it in a place you meant to return to but forgot the location. Mislaid property does not belong to the finder.

I found some antique coins hidden between joists in an old building during remodeling. The owner of the building claims the coins belong to him. Is he right?

Yes. Hidden property that has been purposely concealed is classified as "mislaid." If the original owner of the mislaid property is not available to claim it, the property belongs to the owner of the premises. The coins belong to the building's owner.

Sidebar: Mislaid property is held by the owner of the premises (rather than the finder) where the property is found because he is the "custodian" until the property is claimed.

I found several old coins scattered under a porch I was repairing. Do they belong to the homeowner or me?

In this case, it appears the coins were lost rather than mislaid or intentionally hidden. You own the coins.

Finder's Duties to Lost Property

A person who finds lost property has a duty to try to determine its owner. Typical state laws require the finder to make a "reasonable effort" to locate the original owner. Additionally, the finder must take "reasonable care" of the lost property by maintaining it in adequate condition.

Laws in some states require repayment for the finder's expenses in caring for and returning the lost property. The person who finds a lost horse, for example, feeds it for several weeks and rents a horse trailer to return it to the owner should be reimbursed for the hay and rental expenses.

Caution: If you find a lost item or money and have an idea of who its owner is, and you fail to contact that person, you could be charged with theft.

I found an envelope of cash outside of the hardware store. Do I have an obligation to find the owner?

Yes. The law requires you to attempt to find the true owner of the cash. You can attempt to find the owner by reporting the find to someone in the hardware store or notifying the police.

However, you are not obligated to give it to an employee of the hardware store since the money was obviously lost, rather than mislaid.

The person who found my lost dog wants to be reimbursed for his expenses during keeping it for 2 weeks. Do I have to pay him?

Yes. Since the law requires the finder to take adequate care of the dog, you must reimburse the finder for his expenses. However, he cannot keep the dog until you pay him. You are entitled to the get the dog back. If the finder wants to be reimbursed, he can pursue a lawsuit against you for the money.

Sidebar: The finder is not entitled to be reimbursed for any expenses incurred to actually find the lost property. For instance, the owner does not owe the finder for the gas used while searching for lost dog's owner.

Custody of Lost Property

Sometimes a lost item, such as a wallet found on the floor in a store, is given to someone else for safekeeping until the rightful owner claims it. In those situations, if the property is never claimed, it generally belongs to the custodian (the person keeping the item). For instance, if you are a company receptionist and the deliveryman gives you a necklace he found in the building parking lot that is never claimed, it is yours to keep.

Items found in public places such as the airport do not belong to the custodian if the rightful owner never claims it. Instead, the finder becomes the rightful owner. For example, if you find an envelope of money in an airplane terminal, you may give it to the gate agent in case it is claimed. If the original owner never claims the money, you have the right to keep it instead of the gate agent.

I found a watch in the hallway and turned it in to my employer. Can I keep it?

No. Your employer is the custodian of the watch, and you found it in your capacity as an employee.

Courts have held that retrieving lost items and turning them in is part of an employee's job duties. While on the job, the employee cannot be a "finder" of property on the job premises.

Sidebar: In a long line of cases where hotel maids, bank janitors, bank tellers, grocery store cashiers and other employees have found property while on the job, virtually every case has charged the employee with the duty to turn the found property over to his employer for safekeeping.

I am a security guard at a mall, and I often find money and other valuable items. Can I keep them?

No. In your position as a security guard, the law requires you to hold the items for safekeeping. Because of your job, you are not the typical "finder" who can keep the lost property.

I found a wallet on a counter in a hardware store. Can I keep it?

No. The law requires you to give mislaid items to the person operating or employed by the hardware store. The wallet has been mislaid rather than lost, and the owner or operator of the premises is the rightful custodian until the wallet owner comes to claim it.

I found an eyeglass case with a diamond ring it on the hospital admissions desk where I work. If it was lost, can I keep it?

No. The eyeglass case was mislaid, not lost, according to the law. The diamond ring was hidden in the eyeglass case and the case itself is the sort of object that a person might put down and forget. Since it was on the desk, the hospital is the custodian until the owner claims it.

TIP: Hidden property that is found is "mislaid," not lost.

I found a winning lottery ticket blowing down the street. Do I keep the winnings?

Yes. The lottery ticket was lost. As the finder, you now own it unless another person can prove it was hers.

However, a mislaid lottery ticket does not belong to the finder. The finder is the custodian of the ticket until the owner comes forward. For example, a waitress who finds a lottery ticket left on a table cannot claim to be the owner.

Discovered Property

Under ancient English law, discovery of valuable property was termed a "treasure trove" and defined as money or coins, gold, silver and other valuables that had been hidden. If its original owner was unknown, dead or impossible to locate, the discoverer became the owner regardless of where the property was found. Treasure trove laws became the law in the United States and were adopted by the each state in order to determine the owner of discovered property.

Modern laws refer to the "treasure trove" as discovered property and there are specific provision relating to its ownership. Depending on the state and circumstance of the discovery, the items may belong solely to the discoverer, the owner of the property where it was found or split between the two. Most state laws place ownership with the owner of the property, especially if it is buried. For example, children who find money buried in a metal box near someone's home do not own the money. The owner of the property owns the money, even if the box was buried before he bought the property.

My nephews found some gold coins dated from the mid-1800s in a jar buried in a pasture near our home. Can they keep them?

Yes. Your nephews' "treasure trove" is theirs until the true owner claims it. The age of the coins makes them discovered rather than mislaid property.

Sidebar: Discovered property or treasure is presumed to be so old or "antique" in nature that the true owner cannot be found. If the property does not meet the antiquity requirement, the law categorizes it as mislaid, and the finder cannot claim ownership.

I recently bought a house, and while digging a flowerbed I found $1,000 in new bills in a box. Does it belong to me?

No. Your find is not old enough to qualify as a "treasure trove." The money has been mislaid and belongs to the person who hid it there. You should contact the previous owner about your find.

My children found some pieces of Native American pottery at a state park. Can they keep it?

No. Laws prohibit the taking of archaeological relics buried on federal or state lands.

Under federal law, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) was passed in 1979 and prohibits unauthorized digging and collecting of archaeological resources on federal or Indian lands, including pottery, basketry, bottles, sites with coins or arrowheads, tools, structures, pithouses, rock art, graves and human skeletons. No person may sell or buy any archaeological resource that was illegally acquired. Violations of the Act are subject to criminal penalties, mostly at the felony level. There is an exemption in the case of removal of arrowheads from the surface of the ground on these lands.

My son dug up a rock that appears to be a meteorite on a neighbor's land. Can he keep it?

No. Items that are part of the "natural earth" belong to owner of the land where they were buried. Prehistoric fossils and bones, ancient earthenware and minerals do not belong to the finder because they have become embedded into the land.


You have a right to any reward offered for lost property you may have found. If you do not receive the reward, you can sue to collect it. A contract for a reward materializes when the finder returns the lost property to the original owner in response to an offer of a reward. You are not entitled to keep the lost property until you are paid the reward.

My lost dog was found but not returned until after I posted a reward. Did I have to pay the reward?

No. A person who finds lost property cannot keep the property until a reward is offered. Also, the finder of the lost property may not require a reward as a condition of returning the property.

Liability for Lost Property

Generally, it is the owner's fault if his property is lost. However, in some instances, the liability for lost property belongs to the party who was caring for it.

  • Restaurants, bars and clubs: Owners and managers are not liable for property that becomes lost on the premises unless it was in their care. For example, if you check your coat at a restaurant, the proprietor is liable if it is not returned to you. He is not liable for the coat you left on your chair.
  • Carriers: Baggage is routinely lost when people travel. Luggage that is checked is the responsibility of the carrier from the moment it is delivered into their hands. If an airline loses a suitcase that you checked at the gate, it must compensate you for the value of the suitcase and its contents. (Most carriers have a limit on this amount printed on their ticket.)

Travelers who keep their bags with them are liable for those bags if they are lost. For example, the airline is not liable for a passenger's bags left behind after the passenger placed them in the overhead carrier. However, if a flight attendant takes a bag from the passenger to place in an overhead carrier in another part of the plane, the airline will be liable for its loss.

The airline flying the first leg of a connecting flight is responsible for lost luggage. For example, scuba equipment you checked on your Atlanta to Cancun flight that connected through Dallas cannot be located when you land in Mexico. If you flew on Delta to Dallas then switched to American Airlines to fly to Cancun, Delta is liable for the lost scuba equipment.

  • Hotels: Typically, a hotel is responsible for the safekeeping of its guest's property. Most hotels, however, can limit their liability for lost items and do so by posting signs. Signs in lobby areas and rooms notify guests that the hotel is not responsible for lost items. For example, jewelry lost in the guest's room is not the hotel's responsibility. However, if the guest gave the jewelry to the front desk to place in the hotel safe, the hotel is liable for its loss.
  • Parking Lots: Nearly all parking lots post signs or print notices on ticket stubs limiting their liability for lost and stolen items. If your car or items in it are stolen, the parking lot owner is not responsible.

TIP: Valet parking, which requires you to give your car keys to someone else to drive and park your vehicle, changes liability. In those situations, you have given over the care of your vehicle and its contents to the parking lot owner and his employees. Anything lost or stolen is his responsibility.

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