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$500,000 Found in House Walls Belongs to Estate, Not Homeowners

Last Updated: 7/9/12

You buy a dilapidated house and in the course of renovations you find a huge amount of money hidden in the walls.  The cash is yours, right?  Not according to an Arizona appeals court, which recently ruled that $500,000 found in the walls of a house belongs to the heirs of the man who put it there, not to the house’s current owners.

Robert A. Spann had a habit of hiding cash and other valuables in unusual places in the homes he lived in.  His two daughters knew of his pattern, and for seven years after he died in 2001 they found stocks and bonds, as well as hundreds of military-style green ammunition cans, some of which contained gold or cash, hidden throughout his Paradise Valley, Arizona, home. 

In 2008, the daughters sold the rundown house “as is” to a couple.  The couple did some remodeling, in the course of which a worker for the contracting company found two ammunition cans full of cash in the kitchen wall and another two inside the framing of an upstairs bathroom. The cash totaled $500,000.  After the worker reported the find to his boss, the boss took the cans but did not tell the couple who owned the house about them. The worker, however, eventually informed the couple of the discovery and the police ultimately took control of the $500,000.

The couple and the contractor sued each other for the money.  In the meantime, Robert Spann’s daughter Karen Grande, who was the personal representative of his estate, filed a petition in probate court on behalf of the estate to recover the money. The two cases were consolidated in June 2009.

The trial court ruled that the money belonged to the estate and the couple appealed, claiming that Mr. Spann’s family had abandoned the cash by leaving it in the house when it was sold “as is.”  

In a May 31, 2012, ruling, the Court of Appeals of Arizona agrees with the trial court.  The court rules that while “finders keepers” may work on the schoolyard, in Arizona in order to abandon personal property, “one must voluntarily and intentionally give up a known right.” The court finds that because there is no evidence that Mr. Spann’s estate intended to relinquish any valuable items in the house, the money is more properly characterized as “mislaid” and still belongs to the estate.

To read the full text of the Arizona appeals court’s decision in the case, Grande v. Jenningsclick here.

Interestingly, an Oregon appeals court came to a different conclusion in a very similar case four years ago.  For details, click here.

To discuss elder law issues with an attorney, please call the Elder Law Center at 630-844-0065 or send an email. The Elder Law Center is located in Aurora, IL, Kane County, in the Chicago Western Suburbs.