Buried Treasure on Church Property

Who has a right to the treasure?

Church Law and Tax 1992-05-01 Recent Developments

Church Property

Who owns buried treasure found on a church’s property—the church, or the heirs of former owners who put it there? That was the interesting question before the Supreme Court of Iowa. A family owned a parcel of ground (which included a home) for several generations. The property was purchased by a church in 1987. When the church later demolished the home, it discovered a substantial sum of paper money and coins buried in the ground in tin cans and glass jars. Several silver dollars and half-dollars were from the 19th century. Also included in the hoard were several ten and twenty dollar bills. The face amount of the coins and currency totaled nearly $25,000. Heirs of the previous owners of the property learned of the discovery, and claimed all of the money. They argued that, as heirs of the true owner of the money, their interest was superior to that of the church. The church asserted that it was the rightful owner of the money. A trial court rule in favor of the church, and the heirs appealed. The state supreme court began its opinion by noting:

The rights of finders of property vary according to the characterization of the property found …. The general rule is that the finder of lost property becomes the owner thereof against the whole world other than the true owner. Property is lost when the owner unintentionally and involuntarily parts with its possession and does not know where it is. Mislaid property is that which the owner has voluntarily placed somewhere and then forgets that it is there. The right of possession of mislaid property is in the owner of the premises upon which it is found, as against all persons other than the true owner …. Treasure trove is treated as lost and belongs to the finder as against all except the true owner. Treasure trove consists of coins or paper money which is concealed by the owner; it carries with it the thought of antiquity such that it has been hidden so long that the true owner is not discoverable. Abandoned property is that to which the owner has voluntarily relinquished all right, title, and interest with the intention of terminating his ownership. The finder who reduces abandoned property to possession acquires absolute title as against the former owner. The court concluded that money buried in the ground is treasure trove, and as such it is “the type of property to which the true owner retains ownership as against the finder or the owner of the property where it is found.” The court added that “if the original owner is deceased that person’s heirs … are entitled to lay claim to the property.” In conclusion, the supreme court ordered the church to pay the money over to the heirs. Ritz v. Selma United Methodist Church, 467 N.W.2d 266 (Iowa 1991).

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