(This information should not be considered legal advice for anyone who might find the treasure chest. If you find it, you should seek legal counsel from a professional who specializes in this area.)
Forrest has mentioned meeting with a lawyer to discuss scenarios about hiding his chest. Obviously, it was very important to Forrest that the person who finds the chest be the one who keeps it, and Forrest thinks that the finder will be able to do so based upon how he designed the chase. Forrest would need to make it very clear, when creating the Chase, what his intentions were so that his family or any others could not lay claim to the chest and challenge the finder (because it is worth a significant amount of money) at some future date, whether Forrest was still alive or had passed away.
When considering the potential legal issues and how Forrest put together the Chase, I go to the poem that is supposed to lead one precisely to the chest if a person can solve the nine clues that are contained within it. Something that has always stuck out to me with the poem is the fact that Forrest repeatedly references the hiding place throughout the poem. In the poem Forrest tells us that he made an effort to take the treasure to this place, that he specifically left the treasure there so people could try and find it, and that someone who makes the effort and finds the treasure will be given title to it (see stanzas 1, 5, and 6 of the poem).
To understand how a person could become the legal owner and win any legal challenges that might be brought by family of Forrest Fenn or others in the future, I think it is wise to look at and understand the different classifications of property not in the possession of the owner, and the various legal considerations of when that property is found.
Categories:Lost property – Property is generally deemed to have been lost if it is found in a place where the true owner likely did not intend to set it down, and where it is not likely to be found by the true owner. At common law, the finder of a lost item could claim the right to possess the item against any person except the true owner or any previous possessors.
Mislaid property – Property is generally deemed to have been mislaid or misplaced if it is found in a place where the true owner likely did intend to set it, but then simply forgot to pick it up again.
Abandoned property - Property is generally deemed to have been abandoned if it is found in a place where the true owner likely intended to leave it, but is in such a condition that it is apparent that he or she has no intention of returning to claim it.
Treasure trove – Treasure trove is property that consists of coins or currency hidden by the owner. To be considered treasure trove and not mislaid property, the property must have been deliberately hidden or concealed, and sufficiently long ago that the original owner can be considered dead or not discoverable.
While Forrest is alive:
• The treasure is not lost property as it was intentionally put where it currently resides.
• It could be argued, but likely would not be considered mislaid property; Forrest did say he could go back and get it if he decided he didn't want to carry through with his plan, but he did execute his plan. If the treasure were determined to be mislaid, then the giving of title to the finder (perhaps as a reward) might take care of this classification.
• The treasure would be considered abandoned property because he intended to leave it in a specific place with no intention to go back and claim it. Forrest states in the poem that he took and left his treasure (stanzas 1 & 4) at a secret place for all to seek and emphasized that he made a specific effort to go and put it in its place which left him tired and weak.
• The treasure cannot be ‘treasure trove’ because the owner is alive and readily identifiable.
After Forrest has passed away:
• Forrest made it clear that the chest was not lost; it is located exactly where Forrest intentionally put it.
• Claims by family that the property was mislaid and should be theirs is tough to prove as Forrest clearly states he made an effort to put it somewhere and intended to leave it for all people to search for.
• The treasure chest could also continue to be considered abandoned property, but where the original owner has passed away, it would likely move to the ‘treasure trove’ category, which Forrest seems to emphasize by calling his treasure ‘my trove’ at one point in the poem.
• The hidden treasure could be considered ‘treasure trove’ as it would be clear that the original owner was no longer alive and that it was intentionally hidden for anyone to try and find it.
Whatever was needed to make sure that the finder will be able to keep the chest, it is clear in the poem that Forrest intentionally made an effort to go alone to a secret location and hide/leave (abandon) his treasure chest. Forrest made it clear that he left it there ‘for all to seek’, and has made it clear since releasing the poem that he is a bystander now and has no intention of going back to get it. To emphasize that he does not want or expect it to be returned, Forrest also formally gives title to the person who makes an effort to go and find the place where the treasure has been hidden.