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Abandoned property law pertains to property to which the rightful owner has relinquished all of their rights voluntarily through their actions or words. Abandoned property should be differentiated from mislaid or lost property, in which the true owner maintains ownership even if they do not know of its location. Abandoned property law is most often applied to a scenario where a tenant moves out of their residence and leaves property behind.
Abandoned property is defined at common law as property that has been intentionally discarded by the owner, relinquishing all ownership rights in the object, which is not to be confused with lost or mislaid property. Lost property is property that which has been separated from its owner without the owner’s intention, and the owner is not aware of its location. Mislaid property is property that has been set down somewhere by the owner who believes at the time that he may retrieve the item later, but later forgets to retrieve the item or cannot remember its location. In traditional abandoned property law, though the finder of lost or mislaid goods was entitled to possession over everyone except the true owner, they could never gain ownership of the item. The doctrine has evolved so that after a reasonable amount of time, the property is deemed abandoned and the finder becomes the true owner.
The traditional illustration of abandoned property law occurs at a barber shop where one of its patrons mistakenly leaves a bag at his seat when he goes up for a haircut and never retrieves it before leaving. If he did not mean to leave the bag at the seat, then the property is considered to be lost. If he did mean to leave it at the seat and just forgot to retrieve it, then the property is considered to be mislaid. Because abandoned property law is geared toward returning the product to its true owner, even if an employee of the barber shop finds the bag, it is to be held by the owner of the property on which it is left as it is expected that the true owner will eventually return to find it. Over time, if the property is deemed to be abandoned, then it will become property of the barber shop’s owner.
Today, abandoned property law most often comes into play when a tenant leaves property after the termination of a lease. Some jurisdictions dictate that property to become property of the landlord-owner after providing notice of the existence of the property that was left. Very often, the landlord-owner may bring legal action against the tenant for the costs of disposing such property.
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