Finder Keepers

The content below is from Episode 109 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • I recommend you watch a movie from the late ’90s called A Simple Plan.
    • Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Bill Paxton, and Brent Briscoe this movie is about greed and how it can destroy lives.
    • Here is Google’s plot summary:
    • While in the woods near their small town, upstanding local Hank Mitchell (Paxton), his dim brother Jacob (Thornton), and their friend Lou (Briscoe) discover a crashed plane with two things in it — a dead pilot, and a stash of more than four million dollars. Although Hank is reluctant to keep the money, Jacob and Lou convince him otherwise, and they devise a plan to split the fortune. Things quickly go wrong, however, dramatically affecting the trio and those around them.
    • A Simple Plan directly ties into today’s topic so let’s get right into the main event for this week.


  • I can’t remember what class it was or even if it was high school or college (might have been my one philosophy course on ethics now that I think about it), but I remember watching a movie in class one day titled A Simple Plan.
    • IMDB gives a more brief summation: A Simple Plan (1998) – Three blue-collar acquaintances come across millions of dollars in lost cash and make a plan to keep their find from the authorities, but it isn’t long before complications and mistrust weave their way into the plan.
  • The other day I was thinking about this movie and how this situation might apply to the real world.
    • If I found $4million in the woods like this would it be legal to keep it?
      • The short and unsurprising answer is no. Aside from everything else, they found a dead body and didn’t report it. That, I believe, is wrong in both the legal and ethical sense.
    • But let’s say I found $4million just inexplicably lying in a pile in the woods. No name or any other indication of ownership was to be found. Could I keep it then?
      • Ethically I don’t see why not. If you turn that into the police then, according to the, they get to keep it.
        • “Pennsylvania law stipulates that seized money go directly into the coffers of law enforcement agencies, creating what experts say is an incentive to take as much property as possible.”
  • Legally it is not OK to keep this hypothetical $4million.
    • Yeah, sorry to disappoint any of you out there, but Finders Keepers is not a legal precedent for this situation.
    • Even though money doesn’t have the name of its owners on it like a check or a serial number that belongs to a specific individual, it is still property. So technically speaking, found cash still belongs to the person or entity that last possessed it.
    • This applies to all amounts of legal tender, again I am speaking technically. I think everyone will agree that a $1 bill found on the sidewalk won’t be something that anyone will be taken to court over.
      • This sort of reminds me of when a kid opens up a lemonade stand on their front lawn. Technically that is illegal and the kid (or parents of said kid) should have acquired all necessary permits before opening a business. But who rats on a little kid’s lemonade stand?
        • In the instance I linked to directly above, the cops who responded to the lemonade stand call just wound up buying lemonade themselves lol
    • But for amounts of money under $100 it seems the rules surrounding whether you should keep it falls under common law, this ethical gray area. Most people would just keep it.
      • Once again, technically it is illegal to claim any amount of money just because you found it. You should technically report it to the police first.
    • But practically speaking: if you walked into a police office with a $5 bill and said you wanted to report it missing they would probably laugh at you and tell you to keep it, or they’d just wind up pocketing it themselves.
    • Over $100 amounts seem to be more heavily policed.
  • And anything over $10,000 is watched closely by big brother
    • According to the IRS website, Federal law requires a person to report cash transactions of more than $10,000 to the IRS if they received:
      • In one lump sum
      • In two or more related payments within 24 hours
      • As part of a single transaction within 12 months
      • As part of two or more related transactions within 12 months
  • Then I found a nifty little article on posted back in 2011 and written by a guy going as Doug Humes. He claims to have gone to law school and to be an expert on law within the state of Pennsylvania.
    • Doug said that back in the hunter-gatherer times of man, disputes surrounding property were settled with clubs and violence, but then the law came around.
    • English common law had made a distinction between property that was on the surface and property that was buried or had become buried by some means.
      • Common law is defined as: is a body of unwritten laws based on legal precedents established by the courts. Common law influences the decision-making process in unusual cases where the outcome cannot be determined based on existing statutes or written rules of law. –
      • This common law stated that if property was lost or abandoned above ground then whoever found it was entitled to the property. Doug refers to a 1722 case where a young chimney sweep found jewels in a chimney. The local jeweler claimed they were his, but the court ruled in favor of the boy.
      • If property was found underground then the rules changed. If the owner of the buried property could prove it belonged to them then it was rightfully theirs and in this instance the person who found it would not even be entitled to a reward.
      • But if the buried property was found underground with no clue as to whom it belonged to then it was “treasure.” Depending on the time and place where this treasure was found, it could legally belong to the person who found it, the person who owned the land, or the King who ruled over the country it was found in.
    • For the last 500 years, give or take, England is a country where buried treasure belongs to the King or Queen of the land. The US has a similar system called escheatment.
      • Escheatment is the process of a financial institution handing over the unclaimed property to their state. That includes bank accounts, assets, or any other property unclaimed for an extended period of time. And, if a person dies without leaving a beneficiary to their property, it becomes escheated, or claimed by the state.
      • At the very bottom of the blog I’ve included a graph from that breaks down the time necessary for various forms of finance to be escheated to the state.
      • So if I, a Pennsylvania resident, were to leave a bank account unattended for 3 years and the bank couldn’t reach me or anything, my money would go to the state. I could reach out to the state and let them know “hey, there was a mistake, I need my money back.”
      • If I could prove it was mine (probably by filling out a bunch of annoying bureaucratic forms) then they would give me my money back… supposedly. I haven’t known my government to be very good at giving people their rightful property back as they are at taking it away… but I digress.
    • So in my state of Pennsylvania the common law is as such: if you find something (something of value) then you are entitled to that found item no more or no less than everyone else… except the actual owner.
    • Here is how Doug Humes puts it with his legal jargon:
    • “In Pennsylvania today, the state of the law is that “the finder of lost property has a valid claim to the same against all the world, except the true owner,” and that “the finder of money has title to it against all the world except the true owner.” 
      • Other cases suggest that “the place in which a lost article is found does not constitute any exception to the general rule of law that the finder is entitled to it as against all persons except the owner. The right of the finder depends on his honesty and entire fairness of conduct. The circumstances attending the finding must manifest good faith on his part. There must be no reason to suspect that the owner was known to him or might have been ascertained by proper diligence.’ “
    • If you reach into an unlocked house and “find” some “lost” cash that is sitting on the table then you are not going legally be able to keep that money. If you have a reasonable idea as to whom the property belongs to or how to track him down then that property was never really lost.
      • True story, the day before I was writing this episode my Fiance and I were in Walmart buying a new Trash can for the house we just bought. As we went up to the self-checkout register I noticed two $20 bills sticking out of the cash dispenser. That money was not mine and it was not lost because I saw the last guy who was using the register walking away. I yelled very loudly to get his attention. He smiled, thanked me as he got his cash, and said “you could have kept that.”
      • To which I simply replied “nope.”
      • I could have possibly staked a claim on the cash if I had come upon it and not known seen anyone around to claim it. However, I assume Walmart has cameras pointed at their registers and I bet they could have identified who’s the money it was.
      • If I would have turned the cash into a Walmart employee they could have told me they would track down who it belonged to and then just pocketed it. But I can only control how I would react to the situation and no one else.
    • The law (at least in PA) says that the finder has to have some minimum level of integrity when attempting to find the true owner.
      • Another true story: when I was about 13 or 14 years old I was headed upstate on a hunting trip with my dad and his friend whom we call Doc. We stopped in a grocery store to get some food before we reached our destination.
      • As we were strolling through the bread aisle I looked down and saw a $100 bill on the floor. I immediately pointed it out to my dad and Doc. I will never forget how amazed and then puzzled they were by the situation. I’ll also never forget how the two adults there handled the situation.
      • We first looked around to see if we saw anyone… no one in sight. Then, while the three of us stood around the $100 laying on the floor, Doc said “did anyone lose something over hear?” He was attempting to get the attention of anyone in earshot… no answer.
      • Then my dad and Doc discussed what to do next: “I don’t think anyone is around us and if we turn it in to the staff…” – “They’ll likely just pocket it,” Doc finished my dad’s sentence.
      • “How about this, we’ll stand near it and if anyone comes by and seems to be nervously looking for something we will explain that Zeb found it and give it back.”
      • What followed was quite the comical scene with my dad, Doc, and myself pretending to be shopping for bread while keeping 1 eye on the $100 dollar bill.
      • I can’t remember how long we waited, but after enough time of no one coming to look for their lost money, Doc decided it was rightfully mine since I was the one who found it. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world that night. I felt a little guilty for claiming something that I hadn’t earned, but I got over that by talking through the ethics of the situation with my dad and Doc. They told me to never tell a soul. LOL I’ve never been good at keeping secrets.
      • I ended up spending the money on movie tickets, popcorn, sodas, and Auntie Anne’s pretzels for a big group of my friends one night. I have no idea what movie we saw. Money well spent.
      • But I think it is funny how 19 years later, as I’m looking up the legality of Finders Keepers for a podcast, I realize the way dad, Doc, and I handled the situation was relatively legal.
    • There are some exceptions to this common law of finders keepers. If a government employee such as an on-duty police officer finds unclaimed property then he or she is obligated to report said property as they are not just an individual who found it, they are an agent of the state. If the owner of the lost or abandoned property doesn’t claim it, it does NOT go to the police officer who found it. It is then property that is escheated to the state.
  • So to sum things up: If you find money and there is any form of identification with it or perhaps someone nearby is walking around saying they lost money then NO, you can’t keep it. Doing so, or lying to the owner about finding it would be considered theft.
    • But if you find money and there is absolutely no reasonable way to determine who it belongs to then there is a chance you could keep it…. a very slim chance. Most governments require that the lost or abandoned property be reported and turned in to the state and if no one comes forward after a specified amount of time then it could be given back to the person who found it.
  • While I found myself trying to get an overall rule on finding money very difficult because every state and country is different, summed it up well:
    • “Obviously, the time and expense of trying to find someone over a few dollars is so prohibitive that, while very technically illegal, keeping these sums is acceptable. As the old Latin saying goes, “de minimis non curat lex:” the law does not bother with trivial things. Of course, if you find this money and someone is walking around looking for it, then you would be breaking the law if you lied and said you had not seen it just so you could keep it.”
    • “For added protection, particularly if you find an unusually large sum of money, you may wish to enlist the assistance of an attorney. Not only will the attorney be able to help you ensure the return of your property by law enforcement should the original owner fail to claim it, they can also guide you through the appropriate legalities and tax consequences for keeping the money (yes, even found money can be taxable income as far as the IRS is concerned). Whatever you do, learn from my mistake and do not give the money to anyone other than the police, no matter how honest they look; you will probably never see it again.”
  • If you find property/money and want to avoid any possibility of getting into legal trouble, you have to report it to the cops.
    • Similar to how the movie A Simple Plan played out, chances are that found money will be more of a curse than a blessing to your life.



The table below shows the time required for each state before unclaimed finances become escheated.

StateBank AccountChecks/DraftsWages/Salaries
Alabama3 years*1 year1 year
Alaska5 years5 years1 year
Arizona3 years3 years1 year
Arkansas3 years3 years1 year
California3 years3 years1 year
Colorado5 years5 years*1 year
Connecticut3 years3 years*1 year
Delaware5 years5 years5 years
District of Columbia3 years*3 years1 year
Florida5 years5 years1 year
Georgia5 years5 years1 year
Hawaii5 years5 years1 year
Idaho5 years5 years1 year
Illinois5 years5 years1 year
Indiana3 years3 years1 year
Iowa3 years3 years1 year
Kansas5 years2 years1 year
Kentucky3 years3 years3 years
Louisiana5 years5 years1 year
Maine3 years3 years1 year
Maryland3 years3 years3 years
Massachusetts3 years3 years3 years
Michigan3 years3 years1 year
Minnesota3 years3 years1 year
Mississippi5 years5 yearsNot specified
Missouri5 years5 yearsNot specified
Montana5 years5 years1 year
Nebraska5 years5 years1 year
Nevada3 years3 years1 year
New Hampshire5 years5 years1 year
New Jersey3 years3 years1 year
New Mexico5 years5 years1 year
New York3 years3 years3 years*
North Carolina5 years7 years/5 years*1 year
North Dakota5 years2 years*2 years
Ohio5 years5 years3 years
Oklahoma5 years5 years1 year
Oregon3 years3 years3 years
Pennsylvania3 years3 years2 years
Rhode Island3 years*3 years1 year
South Carolina5 years5 years1 year
South Dakota3 years3 years1 year
Tennessee5 years5 years1 year
Texas5 years3 years1 year
Utah3 years3 years1 year
Vermont3 years3 years1 year
Virginia5 years5 years1 year
Washington3 years3 years1 year
West Virginia5 years*5 years1 year
Wisconsin5 years5 years1 year
Wyoming5 years5 years1 year

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