abandoned property

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Abandoned property is defined as personal property left by an owner who intentionally relinquishes all rights to its control.  Real property may not be abandoned; see adverse possession.


At common law, a person who finds abandoned property may claim it. To do so, the finder must take definite steps to show their claim.  

  • For example, a finder might claim an abandoned piece of furniture by taking it to their house, or putting a sign on it indicating their ownership.

Many jurisdictions have statutes that modify the common law's treatment of lost or abandoned property.

In the context of intellectual property, abandoned property refers to the relinquishing of intellectual property rights by an owner, thereby allowing others to use the intellectual property without protest. 

  • For example, an inventor who does not register a patent to their invention relinquishes the patent rights associated with their invention, allowing others to use the invention freely and without recourse.

Courts may have a difficult time distinguishing whether property is lost, mislaid, or abandoned. Typically, this is a question of fact, which means that the jury usually decides the issue. 


Courts will often look to the type of item and where it was found in order to determine whether the finder of the item has a right to the item. This is done to determine whether to grant possession to the finder of lost/mislaid/abandoned property.

In general, items which are abandoned or lost will go to the finder, unless the find is made at an owner-occupied residence. Mislaid items usually belong to the possessor of the place where the item is found. If an employee finds an item in the course of their employment, it belongs to the employer. A finder is a bailee, with a duty to care for the found item.

Law of Shipwrecks

While the doctrine of abandoned property generally only applies to personal property, United States law has carved out an application for the doctrine in relation to sunken ships. Under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 - 43 U.S.C. §§ 2101-2106, abandoned shipwrecks which are within three miles of the United States territorial limits belong to the United States. In turn, the U.S. gives control over the shipwreck to whichever state would be the most appropriate. 

[Last updated in June of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]