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SCOTUS Kicks California Escheat Law Case Down the Road

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on March 02, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court will not review a controversial California law that allows the state to essentially take unclaimed property after three years, though Justice Samuel Alito did at least warn that the law raised serious constitutional issues that could come before the Court in the future.

California's escheat law has gotten progressively more onerous over time in almost lock step with the state's ever increasing revenue crisis that had only recently come under control during Gov. Brown.

The Law of Escheat

California's Unclaimed Property Law is the subject of widespread critique from many legal scholars (and property owners) and it appears that the controversy's "convoluted history" did much to save it from SCOTUS review. The issue at bar is of state escheat -- a common law doctrine by which the sovereign governing power takes possession of private property after the satisfaction of several requirements -- usually a lack of qualified heirs. Typically, escheat laws come into play during probate hearings.

California's Unclaimed Property Law

"But the constitutionality of current escheat laws in question (California's) is a question that may merit review in a future case," Justice Alito wrote in a note joined by fellow Justice Clarence Thomas. Alito noted a number of potential issues that implicated serious due process concerns. For example, California sends notice to owners of unclaimed property to the same address which alerted the state that the property was unclaimed -- a rather circuitous and roundabout practice.

California's UPL was first enacted as law in the state in 1959 and had an applicable escheat period of 17 years. It progressively got shorter and shorter until it finally got to where it is today -- three years. And it would be naive to simply dismiss claims by some that the state has done so in a somewhat less than innocent attempt to find new sources of revenue.

Notice? Try Again.

Notice is a somewhat wiggly term, a point noted by lawyers from the Laurence Tribe of Harvard Law School. In their amicus, the challengers urged SCOTUS to review the UPL because the law is "a recipe for abuse." For example, hardly any effort is expended to give notice to unknown owners even though those "unknown" owners are highly visible -- like Barack Obama or George Bush. It is somewhat of a incredulous to believe that the state cannot find someone when it really wants to, because it certainly can find someone when it wants them to pay taxes, the Tribe said.

Come to think of it, that's a good point.

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