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State v. Sperry and Hutchinson Co.

Decided: March 4, 1958.

THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, BY GROVER C. RICHMAN, JR., ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE SPERRY AND HUTCHINSON COMPANY, A CORPORATION OF THE STATE OF NEW JERSEY, DEFENDANT



Wick, J.s.c.

Wick

This is a consolidated escheat action, one for absolute escheat under N.J.S. 2 A:37-11 through 2 A:37-28; the other under the Custodial Escheat Act, N.J.S. 2 A:37-29 through 2 A:37-44.

In the action for absolute escheat N.J.S. 2 A:37-13 provides:

"Whenever the owner, beneficial owner or person entitled to any personal property within this state, has been or shall be and remain unknown for the period of 14 successive years, or whenever the whereabouts of such owner, beneficial owner or person, has been or shall be and remain unknown for the period of 14 successive years, or whenever any personal property wherever situate has been or shall be and remain unclaimed for the period of 14 successive years, then, in any such event, such personal property shall escheat to the state."

To define the term "personal property," the Legislature enacted N.J.S. 2 A:37-11, which reads:

"The term 'personal property' as used in this article shall mean and include monies, negotiable instruments, choses in action, interest, debts or demands due to the escheated estate, stocks, bonds, deposits, machinery, farm crops, livestock, fixtures, and every other kind of tangible or intangible property and the accretions thereon, up until the time of the commencement of the action for escheat, but shall not mean and include real property or property in the custody of any court in this state, nor any personal property covered by * * * chapter 154 of the laws of 1946."

In the action for custodial escheat, the applicable section N.J.S. 2 A:37-29 reads:

"In addition to the method provided for the escheat generally of personal property as defined in article 2 of this chapter, an alternative method may be employed in certain cases defined in this article 3. By this latter method the state may take into its protective custody property consisting of cash, dividends, interest or wages owned by a corporation organized or doing business under the laws of this state, belonging to any person remaining unknown, or whose whereabouts is unknown, or whose property remains unclaimed as defined herein for a period of 5 successive years; and after a period of protective custody has expired as herein prescribed, the state may proceed to escheat such property to itself."

Our courts have taken the broad view that the general public shall be the beneficiary of abandonment by construing both the 14-year and the 5-year statutes liberally in favor of the State. In State by Van Riper v. American Sugar Refining Co. , 20 N.J. 286 (1956), Justice Jacobs said:

"New Jersey's quest for legitimate revenues to be used for the good of all of its citizens is in nowise to be condemned and its right to the unclaimed dividends is admittedly superior to that of the corporation which had custody but no moral or legal claim to their retention."

Again, in dealing with the present custodial portion of this case. State by Richman v. Sperry & Hutchinson Co. , 23 N.J. 38 (1956), on appeal after dismissal on motion, Justice Jacobs for the Supreme Court, in discussing the underlying public policy of escheat, said:

"We reaffirm the foregoing approach and reject the Chancery Division's view that the Custodial Escheat Act, (L. 1951, c. 304 -- now N.J.S. 2 A:37-29, N.J.S.A.; N.J.S. 2 A:37-30, N.J.S.A.) is, in this proceeding between the State and the defendant stakeholder or obligor, to be viewed as a penalty enactment and to be construed narrowly. Insofar as the unknown owners or claimants are concerned they are not adversely affected by the act; on the contrary its provisions have the ...


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