What It Means
‘Bona Vacantia’ is Latin for “vacant goods”. It is the label given to property that is without an owner.
Property without an owner then comes into possession of the Crown. The Treasury Solicitor acts as the Administrator on the Crown’s behalf. It is the responsibility of the solicitor to deal with the estates of those individuals who pass away “intestate” (without having written a will) and who are without any relatives. The Treasury Solicitor also is responsible for the collection of assets that had belonged to dissolved companies and all manner of goods without owners, in Wales and England.
Bona vacantia is, in part, a doctrine of common law and can also be found in statute partially. It is concerned with:
• Assets of unincorporated and dissolved associations that could not be distributed
• Assets that were in the possession of dissolved companies and could not be distributed
• Estates of deceased individuals who were intestate and did not have known relatives
• Property of some failed trust
If the Bona Vacantia Department cannot find heirs to a given estate, the estate is liquidated and the funds are given to HM Treasury. The department only deals with estates whose worth is in excess of £500. Assets that were in the possession of dissolved companies automatically come into possession of the Crown. The department liquidates them and the funds earned are transferred to the Exchequer. It is not necessary for the liabilities linked with the assets in question to follow them in bona vacantia.
Farewell Family Fortune
If a family member has been incorrectly recorded as intestate, the potential inheritors may have to forego the inheritance.
Heir hunters warn that inheritance worth millions could pass on to the wrong people. There has been a massive increase in the estates that have been incorrectly recorded as intestate.
10585 estates are recorded as without owners by the Bona Vacantia department of the government’s legal division. Heir hunters are of the opinion that a fifth of these estates were in the possession of people who had written a will.
There has been a reduction in the searches that were undertaken by the government for wills. As per the International Association of Professional Probate Researchers (‘IAPPR’), this is translating into the number of estates that are unclaimed, to grow by 50 per week
Members that belong to this association were asked to find a will in an astonishing number of cases, in the time frame of 3 months. The estates that have been investigated so far are worth more than £15 million. Potential inheritors believed that the wills of their deceased family members had not been found.
Heir hunters did not have to look for wills prior to trying to find members of a family for estates that were not claimed. This was done by government officials. They would record an estate as intestate on the website of Bona Vacantia.
Heir hunters now claim that they locate the next of kin, their hopes are raised and later what happens is that those hopes are gone when a will is discovered later (usually in the house of the deceased individual).
According to Daniel Curran who is the spokesman for IAPPR, for every case that has been recorded as intestate, there is one estate that has a valid will. If the government does not fund the search for wills, it could lead to wrongful ownership of the estate in question.
The increasing number of states that are unclaimed is attracting fraudulent people that want to take the opportunity to grab these inheritances.
Frances Fehr passed away when she was 95 years old. She passed away in Battersea, which is located in southwest London. Her estate was recorded as intestate. IAPPR investigated the case and started to look for possible heirs. Their leads led them to even Switzerland, because Ms Fehr’s father was Swiss. However, the solicitors appointed by her family, found a will in Ms Fehr’s apartment. A cat protection charity had inherited her money.
Daniel says that there exists a simple solution. A will search prior to the advertisement of the estate can lead to the Bona Vacantia division finding valid wills. Individuals that do not have relatives need to know that there is a central probate registry that is free to use.
Not all such instances have a sad ending though. John Browning passed away in the year 2013. It wasn’t certain what would be the result for his house, located in Peckham, southeast London. The abandoned house was discovered by You Spot Property. It was searched and yielded a will which named an ex-neighbour as an inheritor. The amount was £380,000
The amount that heir hunters charge as a fee, ranges from 10%-25% of the inheritance in consideration. If the estates remain unclaimed, their ownership passes on to the Crown after a time of 30 years.
Previously, the legal division of the government stated, it used to retain the services of private contractors for finding wills. They stopped because they were ineffective in finding them. It believes that carrying out the search on its own and making the information available online was a more cost efficient way of finding the right inheritors.
● Prince — the singer’s estate is in dispute a year after he died.
● Rik Mayall — died unexpectedly in 2014 before drawing up a will.
● Amy Winehouse — her parents inherited her estate when she died in 2011.
● Barry White — died intestate in 2003 leading to a bitter family freud.
● Bob Marley — his death in 1981 sparked a series of lawsuits.
● Jimi Hendrix — died intestate in 1970 leaving everything to his father.
● Martin Luther King — disputes still rage over his estate after his assassination in 1968.
Author – Jeffrey Avery