Legal-Ease: Key legal principles on ‘finding’ free money

Many of us enjoy dreaming of winning the lottery. Ironically, the law of statistics shows that it is almost impossible to win the lottery, and winning always requires the recent purchase of a ticket.

Alternatively, movies and our dreams sometimes introduce to us the prospect of simply “finding” free money. Recently, two different people in two different states “found” money. Their experiences remind us of a couple of key legal principles related to finding money.

Earlier this summer, a teen in Minnesota reeled in a wallet when walleye fishing. The previously lost wallet contained $2,000 in cash. The teen located the wallet owner and delivered the wallet, including all of its contents, to the wallet owner.

Also, earlier this year, in Connecticut, a man walking through a bank parking lot found a bag containing $5,000 cash that appeared to have been dropped in the bank parking lot. The finder stated that there was nothing in the bag other than cash.

In the Connecticut instance, the bank surveillance and other resources found the man and showed proof that the money was owned by a local municipality. The bank claims that there was documentation of the owner of the cash in the bag with the cash. However, whether the finder knew who the owner was or not, the legal outcome is the same: the true owner of money is always entitled to return of the money.

Only if the true owner of property is not found can someone else keep the money. If the money is found at a place where the owner likely intended for the money to be (like on the counter of a self-checkout terminal at a retailer), the money is legally considered “misplaced” and the owner of the location of the money is entitled to keep the money.

Conversely, if the money is found at a place where the owner likely did not intend for the money to be (like a bank parking lot), the money is considered “lost” and the finder gets the found money instead of the owner of the property.

Regardless, if the original owner proves that the owner of the lost or misplaced money is the owner of the money, neither the finder nor the owner of the property where the money is found is entitled to keep the money.

Notably, however, if someone purchases a box of miscellaneous items at an estate sale/auction and later finds money in a book located in the box, the money is considered to have been a part of the box of items purchased. In that instance, the money, although likely not consciously “known” by the seller to have been in the box, is not considered lost or misplaced.

If the finder of “lost” money or the owner of property upon which “misplaced” money is found is fortunate enough to be able to legally keep the money (because the true owner is unknowable), the party that keeps the money must report the money as income for purposes of taxation.

Lee R. Schroeder is an Ohio licensed attorney at Schroeder Law LLC in Putnam County. He limits his practice to business, real estate, estate planning and agriculture issues in northwest Ohio. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 419-659-2058. This article is not intended to serve as legal advice, and specific advice should be sought from the licensed attorney of your choice based upon the specific facts and circumstances that you face.