Explaining ‘bona vacantia’: why the Crown could claim your possessions if you die without a will

Did you know there’s a chance the Government could claim your wealth if you die without a will? Expert wills and probate solicitors at Browell Smith & Co explain how.

There is a little-known part of the law that dictates that the Crown (i.e., the Government) can claim your estate if you die without a will and with no known family.

Dying without a will (‘intestate’) or any kin means your property will become ownerless, or ‘bona vacantia’. In reality, this means the state will be able to lay claim to whatever assets you leave behind.

There is actually a long list of currently-unclaimed estates, stored online, via this link to a page on the Government website. There are around 10,000 entries on the spreadsheet, and each estate must be claimed within 12 years before it passes to the Crown.

This helps to underline the importance of leaving a will, even if you don’t believe you have much to leave.

Who should make a will?

The quick answer? Everyone. However, in some cases, it is more of a pressing issue and making a will should be treated as a priority, such as: married couples or civil partners, people co-habiting (you are not included as a beneficiary under the rules of intestacy), those with children from previous relationships or step children (particularly when looking to secure succession), those wishing to exclude family members, those currently in divorce proceedings.

People in long-term relationships, with children, mortgages, property or savings should also consider making a will as soon as possible.

Modern life means family arrangements are sometimes quite complicated, so a will would ensure your possessions are passed precisely to those you wish. Ex-partners can even stake a claim on your possessions if you haven’t been legally divorced and secured a clean break order!

What if I don’t have anyone to leave it to?

If you don’t have any family – or if you don’t wish to leave them anything! – then give some thought about who you would like to benefit from what you do leave behind. Using a will to give to charities is an increasingly popular choice.

Even if, for some reason, you would like your possessions to be given to the Crown when you die, then it’s easier, and more cost effective, to make this clear in a will rather than to leave your estate unclaimed for over a decade.

Can I make a claim on an estate?

If you believe you have a legitimate claim on an otherwise unclaimed estate, there are ways to make a claim. As you would expect, you’ll need to provide significant proof that you are entitled to what you claim.

Note that the online registers are entered by hand and can therefore contain errors, making an already-complicated process even more difficult.

If you believe you have a serious claim, then contacting a solicitor to assist with your claim may be a good start.

What are ‘heir hunters’ and should I use one?

Some investigative firms have been set up to mine the available ‘unclaimed estate’ data and attempt to contact relatives in a bid to help claim the estates.

The problem is, the fees involved are often unreasonable – usually from 10 to 30 per cent of the total estate, plus VAT, with some charging as much as 40 per cent!

If you are approached by an heir hunter, do not sign anything at all until you understand the size of the estate, their fees/commission, and how many other claimants there are.

It’s important to understand that you do not need to use the firm, even if they drew your attention to the unclaimed estate in the first place. Try speaking to a solicitor’s firm – Browell Smith & Co will happily have a no-obligation chat with you – and see if you can save money elsewhere.

Contact our expert team today to arrange a no-obligation chat about making a will at any of our offices, in Newcastle, Cramlington, Ashington and Sunderland, or alternatively by 0800 107 3000, to discuss your particular requirements.

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