Jun 052012

An Arizona appeals court has ruled that $500,000 found in the walls of a house belongs to the heirs of the man who put it there and not the current owners.

Apparently, before he died the decedent had a habit of hiding cash and other valuables in unusual places in the homes he lived in.  After he passed away, his two daughters found stocks and bonds, as well as hundreds of military-style green ammunition cans containing gold or cash, hidden throughout his home.  After seven years of searching, the daughters sold the home to a couple who planned to do some remodeling.  In the process, the $500,000 was discovered by a contractor.

The couple and the contractor sued each other for the money, while the personal representative filed a petition in probate court to recover the assets as part of the estate.  The trial court ruled that the money belonged to the estate and the couple appealed, claiming that the daughters had abandoned the cash by leaving it in the house when it was sold “as is.”  The Court of Appeals agreed with the trial court, ruling that the property had not been abandoned because the daughters did not voluntarily and intentionally give up their right to the cash.  The court found that, because there was no evidence that the estate intended to relinquish any valuable items in the house, the money still belonged to the estate.

Compare this most recent case to a similar one out of Oregon in 2008.  There, the court ruled that the buyer of the residence was the rightful owner of $122,000 found in the wall of a home sold by an estate.  The court concluded that the sales agreement, which required the estate to “remove all personal property” before the closing of the sale, unambiguously included the money found in the house.  The court found that fact that the money’s existence was not known at the time of the sale made no difference and the purchasers of the home were entitled to receive the windfall.

Under the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct, a Florida attorney is required to maintain client confidentiality.  As the Comment to Rule 4-1.6 states, “a fundamental principle in the client-lawyer relationship is that the lawyer maintain confidentiality of information relating to the representation.  The client is thereby encouraged to communicate fully and frankly with the lawyer even as to embarrassing or legally damaging subject matter.”

This duty of confidentiality is one of the chief benefits of retaining a Florida estate planning attorney to assist in the planning on a Florida estate.  A client may reveal information to their attorney, such as the location of hidden assets, which the attorney must hold in confidence until such time as the personal representative of the client’s estate has a need to know.  This arrangement is certainly preferable to telling no one and leaving the estate and the beneficiaries without the benefit of the funds or facing a legal challenge to reclaim ownership of assets that rightfully belonged to the decedent during their lifetime.

If you have questions or concerns about your Florida estate plan, contact an Attorney in Jacksonville who can assist you today.