Imagine you bought a house and, a year and a half later, you discovered bundles of cash totaling more than $100,000 that had been hidden away by the deceased former owner. Who would be entitled to the money — you or the former owner’s estate? Confronted with just such an unusual case, a court determined that the new owner should keep the windfall.
William and Helene Valoff owned a house in Milwaukie, Oregon. After Mr. Valoff’s unexpected death, all assets of his estate were transferred to Mrs. Valoff. Following Mrs. Valoff’s death, her estate sold the house to Helen Sollars. The sale agreement required the estate to leave certain specific personal property (such as a stove and a refrigerator) but to otherwise “remove all personal property (including trash and debris)” before the closing of the sale.
About a year and a half after the closing, an electrician working on the house found bundles of money hidden above the ceiling of the basement. The bundles were bound with rubber bands and adding-machine tapes bearing Mr. Valoff’s handwriting. Because of uncertainty about who owned the money, the police seized and counted it and found that it totaled about $122,000.
Ms. Sollars argued that she should receive the money because she was the rightful owner of anything left in the house after the closing. The Valoff estate countered that it remained the owner because it did not intend to transfer any right to the money when it sold the house to Ms. Sollars. A trial court agreed with the estate, reasoning that the sale agreement was for the transfer of a house, not of money that neither party had known about. Ms. Sollars appealed.
The Oregon Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and ruled that Ms. Sollars is the owner of the money. The court concluded that the sales agreement’s reference to “all personal property” unambiguously included the money found in the house. The fact that the money’s existence was not known at the time of the sale makes no difference, the court held.