We’ve all heard and probably even used the expression “possession is 9/10th of the law.” So, by this mentality, what I physically have in my possession is mine? Great! The $20 I just saw drop out of the man’s wallet in front of me at Starbucks is now mine. The car my friend just let me borrow for the week, I’ll go ahead and keep that. What else do I have in my possession that I want to claim?

Okay, so let’s hope common sense tells us all this isn’t how it works. Yet, time and time again people have taken this idiom, yes that’s all it is, to mean fully what it implies. Let’s set the record straight: just because you have possession, doesn’t mean you have ownership. Possession isn’t 9/10th of the law.

A few common examples of cases implying possession is 9/10th of the law are pet ownership, engagement rings, and stolen property to name a few. A more recent example was a call received into the office where a woman had moved in with her boyfriend. Fast forward to when they broke up and he moved out, she decided she wanted to keep the furniture he had brought into the relationship. She felt entitled to it all because she had possession and her ex-boyfriend had no keys in to get it. Because, to her, “possession is 9/10ths of the law”, she felt she was in the right.

This old adage has been around for centuries and has been interpreted in many ways. The phrase “possession is 9/10th of the law” simply means that at law, ownership might be easier to maintain if one has possession of something and can be difficult to prove otherwise if not. This is where the remaining 1/10th comes into play. The person who is not in possession of the items is the one who has to prove his right to them. The challenging party has the burden of proof, giving the one who has physical control or possession over the property a slight advantage.

This is where replevin law comes into play. Replevin, also known as claim and delivery, is a law that allows people to recover personal property that they are the legal owner to. Replevin can apply to a variety of situations, including situations where property was lawfully withheld but should be released to the owner was not, like our previous example. It may also apply in situations where two parties have rights to possession of property, but one party may have greater rights to the property, such as an engagement ring.

Back to our original example, the ex-boyfriend will need to file a replevin lawsuit to recover his furniture. Unlike most other forms of legal action, replevin is seeking the return of a tangible possession, as opposed to recovering money damages.

Be sure not to get replevin confused with repossession. Repossession does not require a lawsuit and property can simply be taken back into possession without having to pursue a lawsuit first. This is most common with cars as a vendee broke the contract by failing to pay for the car as agreed.

Replevin law can seem confusing and tiring. If you think you have a valid claim, contact an attorney now to preserve your rights.