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Boy turns in $8,000 found on slide: When can finders be keepers?

The legal ramifications of keeping found money often comes down to semantics and how the cash came to be 'lost' in the first place.

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When a seven-year-old boy reached the bottom of a slide in Salem, Mass., on Saturday morning and found a black checkbook, his uncle told he he was “going to learn an important lesson today.”

The checkbook contained $8,000, and the boy turned it over to police later that morning., according to Salem Police Sgt. Kathleen Makros. Twenty minutes after he returned the checkbook, police received a call from Elias Santos, a contractor who had been at the park with his children that morning, saying he was on his way to pick up the cash. Mr. Santos ended up giving the boy a $100 reward.

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Turning the checkbook in may have been a smart move from the seven-year-old, as holding onto it may have seen the boy charged with theft under state “finders keepers” laws.

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Every state has laws requiring the return of money or property if it’s possible to identify the owner, like if someone finds a wallet full of cash and an ID. If the owner is not easily identified, however, things get much more legally complicated.

In most states, the finder is required to contact local law enforcement and give them the money or property for a period of time, allowing the owner the opportunity to claim it. If the rightful owner does not come forward, the money goes to the finder.

Keeping the money without contacting local authorities is considered theft, according to the legal information website HG.org – though the rule usually only applies to discoveries of significant monetary value.

“The reasoning should be obvious,” the article says. “Everyone ever accused of theft would just claim that they found the stolen property if there was not this legal obligation to try to return lost things to their owners.”

The laws can be further complicated if the discovery is made on private property. Cases usually boil down to whether money was “lost” (meaning left somewhere by accident), “abandoned” (meaning forsaken by an owner who has no intention of reclaiming it), or “mislaid” (meaning something that is intentionally left somewhere but then forgotten).

A case in Arizona saw two homeowners find $500,000 in ammunition cans in their walls during renovations. The owners tried to claim the money – which had been hidden by the previous owner – saying it should come with the house, but the man’s two daughters staked their own claim. The heirs knew their father “had a penchant for stashing things away,” according to Time, and unsuccessfully searched the house after he died before selling it to the new owners. An appellate court determined in 2012 that the money had been mislaid, and awarded it to the two daughters.

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So the 7-year-old Salem boy may have learned more than a lesson in generosity over the weekend. Now instead of a possible theft charge he has his $100 reward. His uncle, Daniel Wright, said his nephew plans to use the reward money to buy coins.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.