An Abandoned Safe with $176,000 – Who’s the Rightful Owner?

Estate recovery is the process by which the State can seek reimbursement of Medicaid benefits it has paid during a person’s lifetime from assets of the probate estate after the Medicaid recipient dies.  But, if one must spend down to less than $2000 what is left for the state to recover, you may wonder.  There are actually quite a number of instances where there is money to recover.  The following story from Massachusetts illustrates just one.

 The story centers around a safe that was found on a vacant lot 3 and ½ years ago by firefighters during a routine inspection.  We’re not talking about a small house safe but instead,  a 2000 pound safe.  Police were called in to help crack the safe and inside they found $178,000 in cash.

 It turns out the safe had belonged to a former shoe store owner named Sally Daher who died 2001.  The building where her store  had been located – and is owned by her son – was being rented to a shoe repairman.  Because that store owner had been burglarized, he felt the safe, which had been in the building for 40 years, was a liability so he hired a tow truck driver to remove it.  The driver figured he could sell it to a local junkyard and make a profit but when the yard owner wouldn’t take the safe he dumped it in a vacant lot next to the driver’s home where it remained until the firefighters discovered it.

 Several people stepped forward to claim ownership of the safe’s contents, including the State of Massachusetts.  That might seem odd at first, until we learn that Daher had lived in a nursing home the last 5 years of her life and had received Medicaid benefits from the State.  If it was determined that Sally Daher was still the rightful owner of the safe and its contents, then Daher’s estate now had assets worth $176,000 from which Massachusetts could seek reimbursement for benefits it paid out on her behalf, under estate recovery laws.

As with any legal dispute, this one wound its way through the court system.  3 and ½ years later a judge ruled that the safe belonged to Sally Daher and awarded the money to the State.  Had Daher’s family discovered the money while she was still alive they would have had to spend it down first towards her care before applying for benefits.  It is reasonable then to reimburse the State monies it might never have had to pay out in the first place.

 In today’s economic climate everyone, the government included, is looking for extra dollars wherever they can find them, including abandoned safes in vacant lots.

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