Never in my life have I had the good fortune of simply stumbling across lost money on the ground or some other random and unexpected place. But I’ve certainly daydreamed about being so lucky.
As fun as such daydreams are, the reality is that happening upon lost money doesn’t mean a windfall for yours truly. There are laws surrounding how to behave in such a situation.
Here’s what legal experts had to say about how to handle found money.
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Attempt to find the owner
Many, if not all, states have statutes requiring a person to return any found money or property when it’s possible to identify the owner, said David Reischer, attorney and CEO of LegalAdvice.com. (Check out each state's weirdest laws.)
You can knock on nearby doors if the money was found on a residential street. If you’re at a store, ask fellow shoppers if the money belongs to them or bring the matter to the attention of a store employee and have them make an announcement. You get the picture, right? And if there’s identifying information with the money, you have even more obligation to return it.
“You absolutely have to make efforts to find the owner if you find money with some sort of identifying information,” said Ambrosio Rodriguez, criminal defense attorney and founding partner of Rodriguez Law Group. “Maybe the cash was next to a credit card or license … you can infer that the money probably belongs to this person."
The bad news
Those who are considering simply pocketing the found money immediately may want to think again.
“If a person fails to turn over found money or property to law enforcement, it is considered theft and a person can be prosecuted,” said Reischer.
Need further proof? Look no further than California law, which says someone who finds lost property and “appropriates such property to his own use, or to the use of another person not entitled thereto, without first making reasonable and just efforts to find the owner and to restore the property to him, is guilty of theft.”
Turn the money over to local authorities
If you’ve made reasonable attempts to find the money’s owner with no luck, many states require that you contact local law enforcement and relinquish control over the money or property. And even if local law doesn’t specifically require it, legal experts say it’s the best course of action.
“Regardless of whether the money is identifiable or not, the most advisable route is to take the money to your local police department for safekeeping while attempts are made to find the owner,” said Seth Morris, an attorney for Berry Law Firm. “Police stations will have standard operating procedures in place to document you turning lost money in.”
The good news is that in the event the rightful owner fails to appear after a certain period of time, most state laws allow the finder to keep the money as their own, added Reischer.
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