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What is Abandonment?

Updated on January 13, 2010

Abandonment, as a legal term, has a wide variety of meanings depending on the subject matter to which it refers. Besides tangible property, some of the things that can be abandoned are persons and personal relations, lawsuits and other legal proceedings, public offices, contracts, trusts, copyrights, patents, and trademarks.

As applied to property, abandonment means the unqualified relinquishment of possession and ownership, without transferring it to any other person. It is roughly the equivalent of throwing property away. Since no one owns abandoned property, it can be appropriated by the first person who takes possession of it.

Abandonment, as distinguished from loss, must be voluntary and accompanied by an intention to part with ownership permanently. It also differs from dereliction (in maritime law) and from dedication to public use, but the distinctions are somewhat technical.

Personal property, whether it is a tangible thing, like a ship, or an intangible thing, like a claim against a bank for money deposited, can be the subject of abandonment. So can incorporeal rights in land, such as franchises, easements, water rights, and mining claims. But real property cannot be abandoned, as a general rule.

As applied to marine or fire insurance, abandonment is a technical term meaning the act by which the insured's interest in property is relinquished to the insurer after "constructive total loss." There is constructive total loss where "actual total loss" (that is, complete destruction) appears unavoidable, or where the cost of saving the ship or goods would exceed their value when preserved or repaired.

As applied to relations between husband and wife, abandonment means desertion. As applied to the relation of parent to child, it means neglect or failure to support, and is generally punishable as a criminal offense.

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