Bona Vacantia

Bona Vacantia
Bona Vacantia
Full Overview Of Bona Vacantia

“Bona Vacantia” is a Latin term meaning “ownerless goods.” In legal terms, it refers to the assets of a deceased person that are left without a rightful heir or a valid will. When someone dies intestate (without a will) and no relatives can be identified to inherit their estate, those assets are classified as bona vacantia. In the United Kingdom, such assets are typically passed to the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster, or the Duchy of Cornwall, depending on the location of the estate. Understanding the intricacies of bona vacantia is crucial for legal professionals, potential heirs, and those involved in estate administration.

Historical Context of Bona Vacantia

The concept of bona vacantia dates back to mediaeval times, when the Crown claimed the estates of individuals who died without heirs. This principle has evolved over the centuries, but the core idea remains: to ensure that ownerless assets are not left unclaimed and are utilised for the public good.

Legal Framework Governing Bona Vacantia

In the UK, bona vacantia is governed by various statutory frameworks that outline the procedures for dealing with ownerless property. The main pieces of legislation include the Administration of Estates Act 1925 and the Companies Act 2006.

Administration of Estates Act, 1925

This Act provides the general rules for the distribution of a deceased person’s estate when they die intestate. It also outlines the procedures for declaring an estate bona vacantia if no eligible heirs are identified.

Companies Act 2006

Under this Act, the assets of dissolved companies that have not been distributed before dissolution also fall under bona vacantia. This includes any remaining funds, properties, and other assets owned by the company at the time of its dissolution.

The Role of the Bona Vacantia Division

The Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) of the Government Legal Department is responsible for dealing with the assets that fall under bona vacantia in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The BVD administers these estates and ensures that the assets are dealt with according to the law.

Key Functions of the BVD

  1. Asset Identification and Valuation: The BVD identifies and values the assets of estates declared bona vacantia.
  2. Debt Settlement: The BVD ensures that any outstanding debts of the deceased are paid from the estate before any remaining assets are processed.
  3. Asset Disposal: The BVD disposes of the assets, either by selling them and converting them into cash or by directly transferring the ownership of properties.
  4. Reuniting Heirs with Assets: In cases where potential heirs come forward after the estate has been declared bona vacantia, the BVD works to verify their claims and reunite them with their inheritance if their claim is valid.

The Process of Declaring an Estate Bona Vacantia

The process of declaring an estate bona vacantia involves several steps:

Search for Heirs

When an individual dies intestate, the first step is to conduct a thorough search for any surviving relatives who may be entitled to inherit the estate. This search can involve genealogical research and public notices to locate potential heirs.

Verification of Intestacy

Once it is established that no valid will exists, the estate is confirmed as intestate. This involves verifying that the deceased did not leave behind any testamentary documents.

Declaration of Bona Vacantia

If no eligible heirs are found, the estate is officially declared bona vacantia. The assets are then transferred to the Bona Vacantia Division for administration.

Asset Administration

The BVD takes control of the assets, settling any outstanding debts and liabilities before disposing of the remaining assets. This may involve selling properties, liquidating investments, and managing bank accounts.

Bona Vacantia and Unclaimed Assets

In addition to estates of deceased individuals, bona vacantia also applies to unclaimed assets from dissolved companies. When a company is dissolved, any remaining assets that have not been distributed are transferred to the Crown as bona vacantia. The BVD handles these assets in a similar manner to those of deceased estates, ensuring that any outstanding liabilities are settled and the remaining assets are appropriately dealt with.

Claiming Bona Vacantia Assets

Although bona vacantia assets are initially claimed by the Crown, potential heirs or interested parties can still come forward to claim these assets. The process for making a claim involves:

Submitting a Claim

Potential heirs must submit a claim to the BVD, providing sufficient evidence to support their relationship to the deceased. This can include birth certificates, marriage certificates, and other relevant documentation.

Verification Process

The BVD conducts a thorough verification process to confirm the legitimacy of the claim. This may involve genealogical research and consultation with legal professionals.

Asset Distribution

If the claim is verified, the BVD arranges for the distribution of the assets to the rightful heirs. This may involve transferring property titles, releasing funds from bank accounts, and other necessary legal actions.

Bona Vacantia and Charitable Donations

In some cases, the assets declared bona vacantia may be directed towards charitable causes. The Crown or relevant Duchy has the discretion to donate these assets to charities, especially if the deceased had a known history of charitable giving. This ensures that the assets are used for the public good, even in the absence of direct heirs.

Legal Challenges and Disputes

Dealing with bona vacantia assets can sometimes lead to legal challenges and disputes. Common issues include:

Disputes Over Heirship

Potential heirs may dispute the legitimacy of each other’s claims, leading to legal battles over the rightful ownership of the assets. The BVD plays a crucial role in verifying claims and ensuring that the assets are distributed fairly.

Fraudulent Claims

There are instances where individuals may submit fraudulent claims to acquire bona vacantia assets. The BVD employs rigorous verification processes to detect and prevent such fraud.

Complicated Estates

Estates with complex asset structures, multiple properties, or international assets can present significant challenges in administration. The BVD must navigate these complexities to ensure proper distribution.

Preventing Bona Vacantia: The Importance of Estate Planning

The occurrence of bona vacantia can be significantly reduced through effective estate planning. By taking proactive steps, individuals can ensure that their assets are distributed according to their wishes and that potential heirs are identified and documented. Key steps in estate planning include:

Drafting a Valid Will

Creating a valid will is the cornerstone of effective estate planning. The will should clearly outline the distribution of assets, appoint executors, and provide for the care of any dependents.

Regularly Updating the Will

A will should be reviewed and updated regularly to reflect changes in personal circumstances, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of children, or significant changes in assets.

Documenting Heirs and Beneficiaries

Maintaining a detailed record of potential heirs and beneficiaries can help prevent bona vacantia by ensuring that these individuals are identified and included in the will.

Consulting Legal and Financial Advisors

Consulting with legal and financial professionals can provide valuable guidance in creating a comprehensive estate plan that minimises the risk of assets becoming bona vacantia.

Case Studies: Bona Vacantia in Practice

Case Study 1: The Estate of John Doe

John Doe, a retired bachelor, passed away intestate in London with no known relatives. His estate, consisting of a house, savings, and personal belongings, was declared bona vacantia. The BVD conducted a thorough search for potential heirs but found none. The assets were subsequently liquidated, and the proceeds were directed to several local charities, reflecting John’s known interest in community welfare.

Case Study 2: The Dissolution of ABC Ltd.

ABC Ltd., a small business, was dissolved without distributing its remaining assets, including some office equipment and a bank account balance. These assets were transferred to the Crown as bona vacantia. A former employee, who had not been paid his final wages, submitted a claim. The BVD verified the claim and arranged for the outstanding wages to be paid from the company’s remaining assets.


Bona vacantia is a critical legal concept that ensures ownerless assets are appropriately managed and utilised for the public good. By understanding the processes and implications of bona vacantia, individuals can appreciate the importance of proactive estate planning and the role of the Bona Vacantia Division in administering these estates.

At DLS Solicitors, we are dedicated to providing expert guidance and support in all aspects of estate planning and administration. Whether you need assistance with drafting a will, navigating the complexities of intestate succession, or dealing with bona vacantia assets, our team of experienced professionals is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about how we can assist you in ensuring that your estate planning needs are met with clarity, precision, and care.

Bona Vacantia FAQ'S

Bona Vacantia, which means “ownerless goods” in Latin, refers to property that has no owner. In the context of an estate, it occurs when a person dies intestate (without a valid will) and without any known heirs. Such estates pass to the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster, or the Duchy of Cornwall.

Property becomes Bona Vacantia when a person dies without a will and without any relatives eligible to inherit under the rules of intestacy. The estate is then claimed by the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster, or the Duchy of Cornwall, depending on where the property is located.

The assets in a Bona Vacantia estate are managed by the Bona Vacantia division of the Government Legal Department or by the Duchy of Lancaster or Cornwall. They are sold or otherwise managed, and the proceeds are kept by the Crown. These funds can be claimed by entitled relatives if they come forward.

Yes, entitled relatives can claim a Bona Vacantia estate if they can prove their relationship to the deceased and meet the criteria under the rules of intestacy. Claims can be made to the Bona Vacantia division or the relevant Duchy.

There is no statutory time limit for claiming a Bona Vacantia estate. However, it is advisable to make a claim as soon as possible to ensure that the assets are not disposed of and to facilitate the process of verifying the claim.

To make a claim to a Bona Vacantia estate, you need to provide evidence of your relationship to the deceased, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates. Claims are submitted to the Bona Vacantia division or the relevant Duchy, along with any supporting documentation.

There are no direct fees charged by the Bona Vacantia division or the Duchy for making a claim. However, you may incur costs for obtaining necessary documents, legal advice, and professional services to prove your entitlement.

If a valid will is discovered after the estate has been declared Bona Vacantia, the will takes precedence, and the estate will be distributed according to the will’s terms. The Bona Vacantia division or relevant Duchy will relinquish their claim to the estate.

Yes, Bona Vacantia property can include unclaimed shares, bank accounts, and other financial assets. These assets are also managed by the Bona Vacantia division or the relevant Duchy until a rightful heir or claimant comes forward.

Genealogists, often referred to as “heir hunters,” play a crucial role in Bona Vacantia cases by tracing potential heirs to estates that have passed to the Crown. They research family histories and locate living relatives who may have a valid claim to the estate. Some genealogists work on a contingency basis, receiving a fee only if the claim is successful.


This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 11th July 2024.

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