A common question I get goes something like this: “My asshole ex roommate moved out of the house I own three months ago and left behind a bunch of stuff. Can I thrown it away? I’ve e-mailed him five times to get his stuff and he hasn’t yet.”
If you have someone else’s property in your possession, is it yours? It depends on why you have it and the relationship you have with that person.
Abandoned property is property in which the owner has given up all ownership rights. Abandoned property is fair game. You can throw it away, give it away, keep it or sell it. The sticky part is knowing whether it’s officially been “abandoned.”
Be sure to cover your bases. If your friend leaves a coat, or your former roommate leaves some furniture behind, do your best to handle it reasonably and document everything. Notifying the owner is probably the most important thing. Make a reasonable effort. Send notice to their home or last known address. Give a certain time frame – two weeks, for example. And explain that you will dispose of their stuff if you don’t hear from them by the deadline.
Lost property is different. You have a duty to try and return it. If your friend didn’t know they left their coat at your house, tell them. If you find a diamond ring on the ground, you can safely assume that it was lost rather than abandoned. Turning it in to the authorities is a safe bet. There is no finders keepers law in Illinois, at least not without making an effort to find the right owner.
If the abandoned item is a car, then it’s a slightly different story. Ownership of a friend’s coat might be transferred to you if they abandon it and you have physical possession of it. But ownership of a car is by title. So, even if the car is abandoned and on your property, it’s technically not owned by you because you don’t have title to it. You can notify the police, who can authorize that it be towed. Towing companies usually have a process for handling it from there.
Another special considering is whether a contract or some agreement applies, such as for a storage facility or in a landlord-tenant situation.
If you stop paying rent but leave your property in a storage facility, the owner of the facility can usually sell your stuff in order to get the money they are owed. The law has specific requirements before they go ahead and sell your stuff, such as notifying the renter, giving a deadline and even specifics on how they can go about selling the stuff.
If you are a landlord, your safest bet is to file an eviction complaint with the court, even if you think the tenant has abandoned their personal property in a unit. If they come back and it turns out you guessed wrong, there could be problems for you.
In all of these situations, imagine the worst case scenario – that you get sued by the owner of the abandoned property or you get accused of theft. Keep this in mind when deciding what to do. Document everything, and don’t act too hastily. But if you’ve been more than reasonable, throw it out, sell it, give it away, burn it, use it, etc.
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