What is Bona Vacantia? The literal translation of Bona Vacantia is ‘vacant goods’. In England and Wales, the estates of people who die intestate (without a Will) and have no known statutory next of kin are administered by the Government Legal Department (GLD). The GLD used to be known as the Treasury Solicitor’s Department (TSol) up until April 2015. The GLD administer estates on behalf of the Crown who by law is the ultimate heir. It’s worth noting that both the Duchies of Lancashire and the Duchies of Cornwall administer their estates separately on behalf of the Duke of Lancaster (the Queen) and the Duke of Cornwall (the Prince of Wales).
So what constitutes ‘vacant goods’? Estates that appear to have no known next of kin. We say ‘appear’ because there may be unknown relatives that are entitled to the estate. Intestacy laws in England and Wales are very generous, particularly in comparison to other countries. Uncles and Aunts of half-blood take priority to the Crown and in practice, this means that you can have people in England and Wales that are first cousins many times removed benefiting from an estate.
The order of priority is as follows; spouse or civil partner, children or their issue, living parents, full-blood siblings, half-blood siblings, grandparents, aunts/uncles, half-blood aunts/uncles and finally the Crown. If a relative has passed away, their descendants are entitled to inherit on their behalf. For example, a cousin may inherit if the aunt/uncle has already passed away or a niece/nephew would inherit if a sibling had predeceased.
Additionally, the GLD also concern themselves with funds from dissolved companies and other various ownerless goods.
How can you find out what estates are unclaimed?
All unclaimed estates are advertised. To the best of our knowledge, estates that are worth more than £500 are advertised on the unclaimed estates list. Historically, this occurred in national broadsheet newspapers and a new release of unclaimed estates appeared every Thursday morning. However, for some years now, the list of unclaimed estates has been updated daily and only published online.
The list no longer contains information regarding estate values, after being removed from the list a few years ago in an attempt to reduce the risk of fraud.
Currently (as of 4th March 2019), there are 8,716 estates advertised as unclaimed. Minimal information is shown about each estate including the deceased’s name, date of death and some personal information about the deceased if known.
Bona Vacantia statistics: England and Wales
Bona Vacantia estates in England and Wales are reasonably rare. Our research indicates that at least 2,000 estates are referred to the Bona Vacantia Division each year as estates that potentially have no known next of kin. However, the figure may be larger than this as the department does undertake some limited enquiries to locate next of kin themselves.
The department lists the name of the referrer and by far the largest portion of estates are referred by local authorities and the financial services sector. In addition, there are a significant number of referrals made by solicitors each month.
62% of estates advertised in 2017 had been claimed by the end of January 2018. Of those that were advertised in January 2017, 82% of them had been claimed within a year of the advertisement appearing. Additionally, only 21 of the 118 estates advertised in Jan 2017 were still unclaimed.
How might you be presented with an unclaimed estate?
A non-entitled relative may attempt to instruct you on an intestate estate. Perhaps a stepchild, friend or neighbour has asked you to deal with the deceased’s affairs when there is no Will, as none of these people would be entitled to extract a Grant of Letters of Administration in England and Wales.
Alternatively, you may hold a poorly drafted Will that appoints an Executor and names a residuary beneficiary who has predeceased. The Will has failed because the residuary legatee predeceased without a gift over clause being included and you’ve got no Executor from whom to obtain instruction. The estate has effectively become intestate.
Your options when presented with an unclaimed estate
If you’ve been presented with an intestate estate where it appears that the family is unknown and unreachable, what options are open to you?
You can refer the estate directly to the Bona Vacantia Division using the BV1A case referral form. The Bona Vacantia Division does not deal with estates where there is a valid Will, there are known relatives entitled in priority to the Crown, the net value of estate is below £500, the estate is insolvent, the deceased lived outside of England and Wales or the deceased lived within the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall at the time of their death.
Before referring the estate to the Bona Vacantia Division, you should ask yourself some questions and make your own enquiries. We advise speaking to the deceased’s friends and neighbours and checking any address books you may have access to.
If there is conclusive evidence that there will be entitled kin, even if their whereabouts are currently unknown, the Division will take no interest in the estate at all. In these circumstances, it should be possible for a law firm to successfully apply for a Grant of Letters of Administration, under section 116 of the Supreme Court Act. This enables the appointed Personal Representative to realise and protect the assets and is usually also limited to instructing a genealogist to identify and locate statutory next of kin. This Grant can then be revoked and one of those located kin can be appointed as the Personal Representative to allow the assets to be distributed.
If all of these steps fail, you could consider instructing a genealogist to help you. A successful enquiry is very likely today as only a small number of estates are referred to the Bona Vacantia Division each year and there is an abundance of readily available genealogical records.
The Title Research approach to an unclaimed estate
Our Administrator Search service is designed to help solicitors that have become aware of a death where no Will has been left and there are no known next of kin. We will locate at least one person who is entitled to the estate so they can then instruct you to act in the administration. If we don’t manage to find you a client or they don’t instruct you to administer the estate, there are absolutely no costs to your firm.
At Title Research, we are opposed to the use of commission fees for genealogy and people tracing and only work on a time and expenses or fixed fee basis. This is due to the fact that we believe that when working on a percentage basis, costs often outweigh the work involved, especially when it comes to high value estates. It is estimated on average genealogists will charge 20% of an individual's inheritance, so for a beneficiary due to receive £80,000, the cost to locate them under a contingency fee could be £16,000. Title Research trace missing beneficiaries in the UK for a fixed-fee of £399 plus VAT and disbursements, regardless of the estate value or individual's entitlement.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Title Research’s genealogical research services, call our Client Services Team on 0345 87 27 600 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.