Question: A friend of mine recently bought a house, and in doing some clean up and painting after closing, he found an antique toy tractor in the attic. It’s supposedly worth about $300; I assume the former owner simply forgot about it when moving her things out of the house. Then again, she may have chosen to leave it behind instead of dealing with the hassle of moving it.

I don’t know what the law might say about personal property left behind after a purchase of real property. Does it still belong to the former owner? What if it was a shoebox of cash left behind that the former owner forgot about? Does the new buyer automatically acquire title merely because it was left behind? Does a buyer have a moral and ethical obligation to notify the seller of what he found, to give him or her the opportunity to retrieve it?

Answer: The facts and circumstances regarding your friend’s discovery of the toy tractor will determine whether the property is legally characterized as “lost” or “abandoned.” Lost property is property unintentionally or inadvertently left behind. Think of a ring left on the restaurant bathroom sink or a pocketbook dropped on the street. Abandoned property refers to property that the owner intentionally relinquishes. Lost property is governed by a set of rules, which attempt to find the property’s true owner. Abandoned property, on the other hand, simply goes to the finder.

To rightfully retain the tractor without further action, your friend must show how and why the property was, in fact, abandoned. Abandonment is never presumed. The law says that a finder of abandoned property must present evidence of a clear and unmistakable affirmative act indicating an intent to relinquish ownership. The real estate contract and other documents likely required that the seller remove all personal property not included as part of the sale. If that is the case, your friend may have an argument that the seller’s failure to remove the property constitutes an intentional act of abandonment.

If there is no language in the contract and no evidence that it was abandoned, your friend is dealing with lost property. Under state law, he has a responsibility to contact the rightful owner and make an attempt to return it.

Generally speaking, once a person takes possession of an item of lost property, then the person becomes a temporary custodian of the property for its true owner. The finder does not automatically acquire title under the generally assumed law of “finders-keepers.” California’s lost property law requires a finder of lost property to return the property to its owner, if known, or hand it over to the police if the owner is not known.

Once property is turned into the police, the true owner of the lost property has 90 days to come forward and prove ownership of it. If the property is more than $250 in value and no one has appeared and proved ownership, the police must then publish notice of the recovered property in a newspaper or other publication. If no one comes forward within seven days after publication, the property is then returned to the finder, provided he or she pays the costs of publication and a temporary storage fee.

The state laws on lost property apply in Davis, but our city has certain exceptions when it comes to returning property to the finder in the event the true owner does not come forward. Under our municipal code, the police do not return “firearms, bicycles, scooters and unregistered mopeds” to the finder. So if you come across a lost bicycle and turn it into the Davis Police, you will not be able to later claim any right as a finder. If not claimed by the true owner, the bicycle will be sold at auction. And money is another exception. If you find money that you turn into the police and the true owner is not found, then the funds will go to the general fund. In short, the city keeps the good stuff.

Beyond his right to the property under the real estate contract, your friend might want to go one step beyond what the law requires and contact the prior owner of the house to notify her of what he found. If the property is lost, he will be rewarded with the satisfaction of returning this property to its grateful owner. If the property was truly abandoned, then he can rest assured that the property is his and a good find.

Preston Morgan is a partner at Kopper, Morgan & Dietrich, a Davis law firm providing family law, estate planning and trust litigation representation. His column is published every other week in the Davis Enterprise. To pose a question to Preston Morgan, contact him at

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