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Hi, Matthew:

Concerning those heart-wrenching lost dog or cat flyers distraught humans post advertising a reward for the returned pet: do they create a contract? If you were to find and return the beloved pet, and the humans refused to pay the posted reward, could the finder sue in small claims court? If the finder refused to hand over the beloved pet unless the reward were paid, is that a criminal offense?

-- Adrienne McCambridge, San Diego

In spirit, a flyer on a phone pole is more like a hooker on the stroll. Not yet a contract, but with a promising future. A legal contract involves Competent Person A offering something of value, and Competent Person B offering something of value in return. The return of a cute pooch to its owner and a reward for the return of the cute pooch will do nicely. So, say you read the reward flyer and later find cute pooch under your porch. You take cute pooch to the person offering the reward. "Here's your pooch! What a peach! He was under my porch. Gimme the reward." A contract is born.

Dog-loser is happy to see cute pooch. "Hey, Jack, you're back! What a break. Well, take a hike, hick. A reward? That was a joke." A contract is breached.

Legally, you can now take cute pooch and put him back under the porch; though, having taken possession of the animal, you are obligated to see that it is cared for until the dispute is resolved. But you are entitled to recover fair costs related to the pet's care and delivery.

Next stop is small claims or mediation. (We hope you kept a copy of the reward flyer to bolster your case.) Assuming dog-loser shows up, he needs a really good (legal) reason for reneging on his offer and breaching the contract. "I changed my mind" or "I don't have it" won't fly. As usual, don't ask us how to collect once you've won, though you do have a lien against the dog and can sell it for the amount of the reward unless by now it's captured your heart.

The Team Matthew Alice mouthpiece sez this child's guide to the law of rewards and contracts could have a few hiccups. You can't demand a reward if none is offered, essentially holding the pooch hostage for payment. You can't claim a reward if you return the pet without knowing in advance that a reward has been offered (if, say, you find a dog, track the owner from its I.D. tags without ever seeing the reward flyer, and return dog to owner). Both parties must have advance knowledge of all the terms for a contract to be established. And, of course, no contract is established if any of the actions or items involved are illegal or stolen (our earlier hooker analogy, f'rinstance). But in general, in the basic scenario in the question, the pet-finder is holding not only the dog but all the cards.

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