What happens when someone leaves their abandoned property with you but never returns to pick it up? How long should you wait before you claim the goods and dispose of them yourself?

Legal disposal of uncollected property

The abandonment of property occurs frequently. A classic scenario is when an adult child moves out of the family home and says they'll be back to pick up their sports equipment, record collection or instruments. Years later, your child's abandoned goods are still taking up valuable space in the house or garage.

So, when can you legally dispose of abandoned goods? In New South Wales, the Uncollected Goods Act 1995 states that you are required to take reasonable care of the goods that have been left with you, not damage them and attempt to get the owner's permission before you dispose of them.

Cars and machinery often top of list of abandoned goods

Uncollected property is a much bigger problem than many people realise and it's not just items that are left behind in the family home. On a commercial level, vehicles are often left for repair and never claimed.

It's also common for old machinery to be relinquished on farms, particularly those with an agricultural tenancy lease.

Difficulties that can arise in relation to the disposal of abandoned property

In a recent matter, we represented a client who owned rural acreage and had agreed many years ago to allow his neighbour, who owned a car wrecking business, to park one or two cars on his property. Twenty years later, our client could not walk through his front gate nor enter his house, due to the thousands of cars that had been left on his land. The neighbour refused to remove them.

Our client was unable to sell the cars that had been left on his land, as under the Uncollected Goods Act, a person cannot sell a motor vehicle unless the Commissioner of Police has issued the person with a certificate stating that the motor vehicle has not been recorded as stolen. With thousands of cars to check, the police would not get involved in the dispute, and so our client was left with the choice of going to court or negotiating with his neighbour.

Unable to afford a court case, our client was able to negotiate with the neighbour, but only so far as to have the cars removed from the front of his property.

Value of uncollected goods determines when and how you can dispose of them

Under the Uncollected Goods Act, if the value of the property is less than $100, you need to give the owner 28 days' notice that you intend to dispose of the goods. You need to give three months' notice if the value is between $100 and $500, and six months' notice for abandoned property up to the value of $5,000. You also need to publish a copy of the notice in a newspaper. If the property is valued at more than $5,000, you will need a court order before disposing of the goods.

This leads to another question; how do you determine the value of the goods? Does it encompass the collective value or just one item? This is a grey area of the law.

Liability for compensation if correct process not followed

If you haven't followed the law before disposing of uncollected goods, you may have to pay compensation for the value of the goods, and you could even be charged with theft.

While it is possible that you may be eligible to recover costs for storing and repairing goods, this would need to come under the terms set down in the Uncollected Goods Act.

Goods left in a storage facility, with a pawnbroker or in a retirement home

For property that has been left in a storage facility, there will usually be a contract with the owner regarding the disposal of goods if the storage fee is not paid. However, if there is no pre-arranged agreement, the Uncollected Good Act can apply.

If goods have been left with a pawnbroker, different legislation may apply, as outlined in the Pawnbrokers and Second-hand Dealers Act 1996.

Any property left in a residence by a tenant is treated under different laws, as detailed in Part 6, Division 2 of the Residential Tenancies Act NSW 2010.

Separate legislation also applies to property that is abandoned in a retirement home, as stated in section 146, section 147 and section 148 in Part 9, Division 7 of the Retirement Villages Act 1999.

To avoid confusion and ensure you are following the correct legislation, it is wise to first seek legal advice before disposing of any abandoned property.

Anneka Frayne
Tenancy disputes
Stacks Law Firm

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.