Several news sources reported this story in May 2011. Josh Ferrin had just bought a house when he found $45,000 in small bills, squirreled away in the attic of the garage. The previous owner Arnold Bangerter had died a few months earlier, and the house was sold by his children. Ferrin was ecstatic over his find until his wife said they should return the money to its “rightful owners.” He agreed and gave the money to Bangerter’s heirs, who said that their father sometimes hid part of his savings in the house. Ferrin didn’t feel right keeping the money even if he were legally entitled to it. What exactly was Ferrin’s ethical obligation?
Contributed by John Hooker
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The basic principle here is that an arbitrary violation of property rights is not generalizable. If I take someone else’s property (without permission), I want it to be my property. But there can be no property if people never respect property. Someone will just take it from me, which defeats the purpose of my stealing it.
To have an institution of property, we must arrive at an understanding of who owns what. Property law embodies an understanding that has been worked out over the centuries. So the generalization principle normally requires us to observe property law.
The general rule with real estate is that personal property (such as furniture) doesn’t come with the house, unless there is some provision to the contrary in the sales contract or deed. Thus suggests that Ferrin is not legally entitled to the money. I don’t know if the seller waives ownership by leaving personal property in the house after the real estate is transferred. I suspect not, but perhaps an attorney can comment on this.
If it turns out that Ferrin is the legal owner, he must decide what to do with the money, as he would with any windfall. It is no different than with, say, lottery winnings. Perhaps it makes him feel better to give the money to Bangerter’s heirs, but this may not be the ethical choice. This takes us into the general issue of how one should spend one’s money, which I won’t try to address here.