As some of you probably have heard over the last few weeks, a couple in California discovered approximately $10 million worth of antique gold coins buried on their land. While this is quite an extreme example of the issue, this historic find provides an opportunity for a segue into a broader discussion of ownership rights to discovered or unclaimed property.
Time has a great article on the California couple’s particular circumstances and discovered property issues generally. You can find that here: TIME | “The Law of Finders-Keepers and What Happens When You Find Buried Treasure”.
All caught up on those property law basics? Good. From those more general guidelines, we can move to the particular standards in Minnesota. Cases of randomly discovered valuable items are rare (read “rarely reported to authorities by a discovering party”). Rare as those cases are, the general strain of thought is pretty consistent.
The loosely defined “Finders-Keepers” rule applies for most instances of randomly discovered property in Minnesota as well. Normally, a discovering party in possession of the property has the best claim of right to that property against the rest of the world, with the exception of the true owner. That part is simple. For our purposes here, the distinctions between abandoned, lost, mislaid, and treasure trove property hold fairly true as well. Oversimplified, but easy enough, right?
Now here’s the part that news stories rarely mention. While the idea of lost or buried treasure is intriguing, nowadays the true face of unclaimed and discovered property is usually far more mundane. Most property falling into this category actually comes from forgotten or neglected financial transactions, where there is some indication as to the original owner. In those cases the antiquated common law distinctions apply less frequently.
Instead, Minnesota has adopted into statute the Uniform Disposition of Unclaimed Property Act (UDUPA). M.S.A. § 345.31 et seq. (2013). UDUPA contains specific requirements regarding the retention and sale of unclaimed property in most real life situations. This includes funds and property held by banks, life insurance companies, utility companies, courts and government agencies, pension funds, and other fiduciaries, for example. This is where the real story behind most unclaimed property begins.
For property held by most of the mentioned entities (“holders”), that property will basically be presumed “abandoned” if there has been no communication or activity from the owner regarding the property within a certain time period, most commonly three years. However, keep in mind that period may be significantly shorter depending on certain circumstances, including the type of property held, the type of holder, or the dissolution of the holder.
After identifying abandoned property, the holder must follow certain statutory requirements. These typically include issuing an annual report to the commissioner of commerce detailing any property held and all purported owners. Holders must also provide notice to any presumed owners prior to filing the report. Then they must pay or deliver all such property to the commissioner of commerce with a copy of all documents evidencing ownership for any presumed owner, unless the commissioner declines to receive, or postpones receipt of, the property.
After a certain amount of time, the commissioner posts a single public notice of a sale at least three weeks in advance and notifies the MN Historical Society at least 90 days in advance. The Historical Society can choose any items of historical value. If an owner does not yet appear to claim the property, the commissioner then proceeds to host a public sale of the property. These sales happen roughly every 10 years.
At this point the State auctions the property and holds the proceeds in trust. At this time last year, estimates put the value of property held by the State of Minnesota at over a whopping 550 million dollars. Of course, the State makes efforts to return the property to the rightful owner, most notably by maintaining an online database through which you can search for property, found here.
However, the general public consensus seems to be that the State does not trytoo hard to reunite owners with their property. The reason for this belief being that the State gets to keep the held property in the general fund, so there is less motivation for state agents to go out of their way to create happy reunions. On average, each year the State returns property successfully at a rate between 30 and 40 percent.
Regardless of your opinion about the State’s efforts, it’s not a bad idea to do a quick search for yourself and family or friends. You never know what you might find. And the next time someone mentions discovered or unclaimed property, think less “must buy metal detector” and more “I should really check in with my bank.”