Sunday, July 25, 2010


A few weeks ago, a reader in Columbus, Ohio, writes, he was passing through the parking lot of a city park and found an envelope containing a few hundred dollars.

"There were names on the envelope," he writes, "and it wasn't hard to trace it to a couple who got married that weekend in the park."

My reader left his contact information with the park office, but didn't turn in the cash. He figured that it would be too easy for some third party to tell him that they had found the owner and returned the money ... even if they hadn't and didn't.

Ten days passed, which didn't surprise my reader, since he figured the people who had lost the money were now on their honeymoon. When the owner finally called, however, it was when my reader was on vacation. He returned the call when he got back to Columbus, five days later. By now 15 days had passed since he found the envelope.

He got a recorded answer when he called, so he left a message. He expected a quick return call, but got nothing.

"I left another message on Day 18," he writes, "and called again on Day 19, and we finally spoke."

The owner of the money said that she would call my reader that Sunday - Day 21 - to arrange a time to come to his house to pick up the envelope.

"That was yesterday," my reader writes, "and I didn't get a call."

He is "ethically comfortable" not calling the rightful owner again, he adds.

"I think three unrequited calls is enough," he explains, "and she knows how to reach me."

His question, however, looks forward rather than backward: "How long is long enough before I decide the cash is mine? If I wait another month - to Day 60 - and spend it, what do I say if she calls me on Day 61 to arrange pickup?"

He's a regular reader of my column each week, he writes, but can't remember my ever covering a situation like his.

"My wife and I have actually used the phrase, `Well, the ethics guy from the paper would say ... ' when we've talked about this."

While I have written about the importance of returning found items to their rightful owners, my reader is correct that I've never addressed how to calculate the appropriate length of time to wait before giving up on a rightful owner collecting his or her belongings.

The answer, I'm afraid, is that there is no appropriate period. What's hers is hers, and will stay hers unless she herself tells him to keep the money.

My reader did the right thing by notifying the park office about his find. If no owner had come forward after several months, he might make a good case for considering the money rightfully his to keep.

Because he has identified the owner and made initial contact with her, however, the right thing for him to do is to set aside the money until she finally makes her way to his house to pick it up. It was rude of her not to call on the appointed day, but her rudeness does not make her money any less hers.

It's obviously a nuisance to have to wait her out, but my reader already realizes that it's the right thing to do: That's why he would be at a loss to explain himself if he spent the money on Day 60 and she showed up the next day to reclaim her cash.

He's doing good by trying to get the money to its rightful owner, and he shouldn't let her lackadaisical response keep him from staying the course.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Bill Jacobson said...


How seriously put out is your reader by giving the actual owner more time to collect the money? Put it in a drawer and forget about it until either the owner comes to pick it up or enough time has passed where both have forgotten about it and it becomes the finder's.

Your reader should be aware though that many jurisdictions require finders who find more than $100 to turn it into the police. Failure to do so can be considered theft. If the property goes unclaimed for the requisite period (60-90 days commonly) then it becomes the finders... That time period may not start until the finder turns it in.

Bill Jacobson
Cypress, CA

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