A recent article in The Guardian newspaper “How royal estates use bona vacantia to collect money from dead people” caused outrage on social media. People were surprised to learn of the rights of King Charles III as the Duke of Lancaster and Prince William as the Duke of Cornwall to benefit from the estates of people who die without a Will whilst living in Lancashire or Cornwall.  In other areas in England & Wales such estates pass to the Crown.

In this blog we will highlight the ways in which these provisions could affect you and can be avoided.

Why do assets pass to the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall, and to the Crown?

Bona Vacantia is a Latin term meaning “vacant goods” or “ownerless property”.  It relates to assets of someone who dies without having made a valid Will and where there are no surviving relatives.  The legal rules linked to Bona Vacantia result in those assets passing to the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall, or to the Crown.

What happens to the Bona Vacantia assets?

Initially, when a person dies without a valid Will, steps will be taken to see whether there are any specified relatives who may be entitled to inherit the assets.   The relatives that are entitled to benefit are listed in the Administration of Estates Act 1925 (“the Intestacy Rules”) in an order of priority and are the deceased’s:

  • spouse or civil partner;
  • issue (i.e. children or their biological descendants, this includes adopted children and descendants);
  • parents;
  • full blood brothers and sisters (i.e. those siblings who share both biological parents with the deceased);
  • half blood brothers and sisters (i.e. those siblings who share one parent with the deceased);
  • grandparents;
  • uncles and aunts of the whole blood (i.e. the child of both of one set of the deceased’s grandparents from either side) or their issue; and
  • uncles and aunts of the half blood (i.e. the child of one of the deceased’s grandparents from either side) or their issue.

Only where no relatives can be found in any of the listed categories above do assets pass to the Crown, or if the person who died was resident in Lancashire to the Duchy of Lancaster or if resident in Cornwall to the Duchy of Cornwall.

Can a person who is not one of the specified relatives claim Bona Vacantia assets?

 Since 1925, the only real extension to the people who can benefit under the Intestacy Rules has been to extend the term “spouses” to include “civil partners”.

The Intestacy Rules have not moved with the times and do not recognise other relationships which are common in modern society such as people who cohabit, stepchildren or step-parents.  Unless these people successfully bring Court proceedings to show that the deceased should have made reasonable financial provision for their maintenance and has failed to do so, they will not be allowed to benefit.

How can I ensure my assets don’t pass to the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall, or to the Crown?

The only way in which you can be certain that this won’t happen is to have a valid Will to provide for the people or charities that you would like to benefit following your death.

Whilst ensuring that your assets pass to your chosen beneficiaries is vital, there are many other benefits in having a valid and up to date Will.

By appointing Guardians in your Will, you will be able to choose who looks after your minor children should you die.

You can ensure that the people responsible for dealing with the administration of your estate and collecting your assets (your Executors) are people with integrity who have the necessary skills to carry out their duties impartially and to implement your wishes.

You are able to make appropriate arrangements for your chosen beneficiaries, particularly those who may be vulnerable or disabled.

One of the main benefits of having a carefully drawn up Will that ensures your wishes are met following your death, is that it provides you with peace of mind that your wishes will be followed.

How can we help?

Our friendly and approachable team of specialists can draft your Will for you as well as providing you with impartial advice and recommendations based on your personal circumstances.  We recognise that everyone is different and we provide tailored advice for people with more complex family situations and people who need to provide for a disabled person, as well as offering guidance on Inheritance Tax planning.

If you would like to discuss making a Will please get in touch and speak to one of our specialists on 01273 610611 or email us at info@renaisssancelegal.co.uk

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Deborah Henn

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