A new case decision from the Arizona Court of Appeals involves a situation that perfectly illustrates the law of “treasure trove.” It’s the classic scenario in which someone hid a stash of valuables in a house, then, years later and after the person who hid it died, someone else found the stash. Who is the rightful owner?
Here’s the story in the new case from the Court of Appeals. The owner of a house in the Phoenix area died in 2001 after having lived in the house for many years. Over a period of seven years after the owner died, his children found, according to the Court’s reported decision, “hundreds of military-style green ammunition cans hidden throughout the house, some of which contained gold or cash.” The children made some repairs to the house, then eventually sold the property in “as-is” condition.
The new owners hired a contractor to renovate the dilapidated house. Soon thereafter, an employee of the contractor found two ammunition cans full of cash hidden inside a wall in the house. He went looking for more cans and found two more. The four cans found by the contractor’s employee contained a total of $500,000 in cash. The employee gave the cash to his employer, the contractor, who put it in his safe. Ultimately the employee told the new owners of the house, who called the police, who took control of the cash.
So, who gets the cash? You have all of the facts. I’ll give you a hint: not the contractor or his employee. In the words of the Court of Appeals, “although elementary school children like to say ‘finders keepers,’” that is not the rule.
The Court of Appeals analyzed the situation by first defining the four categories of found property: mislaid, lost, abandoned, and treasure trove. The Court then went about deciding how to categorize the $500,000 found in the ammunition cans.
The Court defined lost property as property that the owner unintentionally parted with through carelessness or neglect. Abandoned property was defined, conversely, as property that was thrown away or voluntarily forsaken by its owner. Not surprisingly, they decided that the cash in this case was not lost or abandoned. Given that definition of abandoned property, the circumstances would have to be pretty unusual to for a court to decide that a large amount of cash was abandoned.
The Court then defined “treasure trove” as property that is “verifiably antiquated [I think that means definitely really old] and has been concealed for so long as to indicate that the owner is probably dead or unknown [I’m pretty sure that means long enough that you can’t figure out who put it there].” Property is classified as mislaid, on the other hand, “if the owner intentionally places it in a certain place and later forgets about it.”
Which category fits the ammo cans full of cash? The finder’s rights depend on how the found property is categorized. If the found property is lost, abandoned, or treasure trove, the person who found it gets to keep it unless the original owner claims it (so actually, unless the original owner claims it, the rule is “finders keepers”). If the found property was mislaid, the owner of the place where it was found gets it, again unless the original owner claims it.
None of the categories fit these ammunition cans perfectly, but the Court decided that the cash belongs to the estate of the person who hid it, meaning that his children get it. Why? Because the original owner (the estate of the homeowner who hid the cash) claimed it. Ironically, it appears that the result would have been the same no matter how the cash was categorized.
The Court noted that at least one court has recognized a fifth category of found property: “embedded property.” Yes, that would be buried treasure, except that one case inexplicably excludes gold and silver from the definition of embedded property. You’d think that at least for that category, the rule really would be “finders keepers,” right? But no, even if it’s categorized as embedded property, the owner of the land where it’s buried gets it unless the original owner claims it.
Going back to the Arizona case, what about the fact that the children of the original owner sold the house “as is?” Doesn’t that mean that they abandoned the cash? The Court of Appeals essentially said that because the children didn’t know the cash was there, they didn’t have the necessary intent to abandon it. Sorry, new owners, no windfall for you.
So, what’s the moral of the story? That’s easy: don’t hide $500,000 in cash in the walls of your house.
HASN’T THIS GUY EVER HEARD OF FRENCH FRIES AND ICE CREAM?
I know this is off topic, but I just can’t resist commenting on the proposal by Mayor Bloomberg of New York City to restrict the size of soft drink servings. The American Council on Science and Health reports at its web site (www.acsh.org) that Dr. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said this in a letter to the editor published in the New York Post in support of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal: “Sugary soft drinks are the single biggest source of calories in the American diet and are the only food or beverage shown to increase one’s risk of weight gain.” Really?
QUOTE OF THE MONTH
“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
~ Ray Bradbury
US science fiction author (1920 -2012)