Bona Vacantia Guide to Ownerless Property and Assets

Bona Vacantia explained simply

Bona Vacantia is an old-fashioned legal phrase still in use. The Latin phrase roughly translated means ‘empty goods’.

When someone has died intestate, it means they haven’t left a valid will. The term in this context is used to mean ‘ownerless property’. This is because there is no valid will and there are no surviving blood-related relatives*. In such a case, anything that remains undistributed is deemed to be Bona Vacantia and passes to the Crown.

*formally stated as ‘all bloodlines have been exhausted to determine the division of the assets’

What happens to freehold land?

The feudal term “escheat” is used where there are no heirs to freehold land. This will be managed by the Crown Estate where the land is in England and Wales unless in Cornwall or Lancaster when the appropriate Duchy will administer the process. The land will revert to the Crown or relevant Duchy as the ultimate owner of all land.

Escheat happens to freehold land belonging to a company or an individual in limited circumstances:

  1. When the Treasury Solicitor disclaims the land which had belonged to a dissolved company
  2. A liquidator disclaims the land which belonged to the company they are responsible for winding up;
  3. A trustee is in bankruptcy or the official Receiver disclaims freehold land which has belonged to an individual
  4. An overseas company is dissolved where they had owned freehold land in England and Wales

In limited situations where a company has been dissolved then a Bona Vacantia waiver letter can be obtained to restore the company. This confirms the Treasury Solicitor does not object to its restoration and will release any assets back from the Crown to the company once restored.


Bona Vacantia FAQs

All assets are included as Bona Vacantia where they form part of an Intestate person’s estate.

If no individual successfully claims Bona Vacantia, it will pass to the Crown. Usually, the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) will either disclaim or sell Bona Vacantia for full market value. The BVD is unlikely to sell privately to anyone. Any sale is usually at a public auction.

Anyone who believes they are entitled to receive the assets of the person who has died leaving Bona Vacantia can make a claim. This includes a person entitled under an intestacy and anyone who is administering the estate of someone who was entitled under the Intestacy.

The person whose estate they are administering must have died after the person whose estate is unclaimed. If the claim is successful, such assets will pass into the estate of the person who has now died and be distributed either under their Will or Intestacy. A claim can be made personally or by a legal representative.

The BVD publishes an updated list every day of the estates they are dealing with under Bona Vacantia. They aim to update the information within 5 working days of notice of any potential estate that falls with Bona Vacantia.

Names are removed from the list when:

  • The time limit to submit a claim has expired
  • A valid claimant has come forward
  • A valid WIll has been discovered
  • The estate has been found to be insolvent, meaning there is no money left to pay out to claimants, whether valid or not.

This is part of the government legal department and is responsible for administering unclaimed estates on behalf of the Crown.

Claims can be made personally or using a solicitor.

A claim may be made either by the person who thinks they themselves are entitled or by someone administering the estate of someone who survived the intestate person but has since died without making a claim.

Due to the complexity of the process and level of detailed information needed for a successful claim, it is always best to seek the advice of a solicitor who has specialist experience of the rules and procedure for claiming Bona Vacantia.

Yes, Bona Vacantia applies to each location in the same way and manner.

How do you avoid assets being passed to the government?

Most of us would prefer that our hard-earned money and assets not go to the state after our deaths. This is true; however, it might happen – as money assets, property or in the form of taxes that might otherwise be avoidable.

For this reason, it is essential to make sure you have a valid and up-to-date Will in place. This ensures the people you choose, inherit from you. As our personal and financial circumstances change during our lifetimes, it is important to review the content of our Wills regularly (about once a year is recommended).

If the estate you will leave is large enough, It is also important to make sure that you look at the impact Inheritance Tax might have when you die. With proper planning and advice, it may be possible to reduce or even eliminate the need to pay Inheritance Tax. There are various ways to do this that are completely legal and ethical.

How can someone make a claim?

We strongly recommend that anyone who feels that they may be the rightful heir of an unclaimed estate should use a solicitor who is specialised and has experience in this process.  There are strict and demanding requirements to be able to prove a claim as follows:

  • Claims made up to 12 years from the completion of administration of the estate of the person leaving Bona Vacantia include interest.
  • A claim can be made up to a maximum of 30 years from the date of death if this is later, provided the claim is properly and fully documented within that time period. There is no discretion to extend this time limit. Such payments will not carry interest.
  1. The first step is to prepare a complete family tree and send this to the BVD showing how you are related to the person. This needs to be as complete as possible including full names (married and maiden names if appropriate) dates of birth, marriage and death of every individual included in the family tree and entitled in priority under the Intestacy Rules.
  2. The BVD will then ask you to provide documentary evidence to support your claim including birth, marriage and death certificates, ID paperwork (not a driver’s licence from abroad, a mobile phone or credit or store card bill), and any explanation in full where no such paperwork exists. Photocopies won’t be accepted, so either official copies will need to be applied for if you are making a claim or you will be asked to provide copies of the originals certified by a suitable person. A solicitor can provide documents to the BVD in a form that they will accept to avoid the risk of sending original documents that may be lost.
  3. Failure to send in the right documents will result in the claim being returned and cause delays and possible rejection of your claim. You would then need to start all over again as copies would not be kept at the BVD. If, in the meantime, someone else makes a properly and fully documented claim, their claim will be considered first. Also, if someone higher up the order of priority under the Rules of Intestacy, sends in a claim after yours, their claim will always be considered first.
  4. Documents issued in the UK can be applied for from General Register Office in Merseyside ( certificates in England and Wales) or Register General in Edinburgh (certificates in Scotland) or General Register Office in Roscommon, ( certificates in Northern Ireland pre-1922) and Register General for Northern Ireland in Belfast (post-1922).
  5. Documents and certificates issued outside the UK will need to be obtained from the relevant authorities and offices as appropriate. If these are not issued in English,  a properly certified English translation must be provided along with the official certificate. Again, a solicitor should be able to help you.
  6. All the paperwork is required to show to the BVD that ‘on the balance of probabilities’ the money should be paid out to you rather than the Crown. If you satisfy the BVD of your claim, you will be paid.
  7. If the claim is accepted by the BVD then they will contact you, telling you the value of the Estate and asking for details of who will act as the Estate’s administrator if you haven’t already informed them. They will then release the money in a way determined by the circumstances and the value of the estate itself.

BVD will only release information about the value of the estate, or details about its assets and liabilities, to a successful claimant or their representative.