Searching for Heirs

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What Happens if You Die Intestate?

The term ‘Bona Vacantia’ literally means ‘vacant goods’ and is the legal name for ownerless property, left by someone who dies intestate (ie. without making a will), without known kin and whose property, by law, then passes to the Crown. The work of Bona Vacantia dates from the Norman Conquest, making it the earliest duty of what is now the Government Legal Department.

This department deals with people who die intestate in England or Wales without any entitled family. Its objective is to undertake the administration of estates and to dispose of the assets and collect the revenues of dissolved companies, through high quality and cost effective casework.

It only deals with solvent estates leaving a net balance of £500 or above and approximately 2,000 cases are referred to them each year. They make enquiries to seach for entitled family, failing which they may issue advertisements in both the national and local press, as well as on their own website. (This is usually the starting place for the‘heir-hunting companies’ featured on TV, who research the lists for any lucrative estates where they can track down family of the deceased and reunite them with their inheritances. Often, contact has been lost long ago or, in some cases the family has had no previous knowledge of their benefactor.)

Respondents to the department’s advertisements are required to provide evidence of their blood relationship in the form of birth, marriage and death certificates, along with evidence of their identity. Respondents may also be asked for anecdotal evidence, if they knew the deceased. If entitled kin are traced, the Treasury ceases to have any interest or involvement in the estate.

If no family members are found within a stated time frame, the Division will dispose of the full range of assets; including bank and building society accounts, life insurance or property, in fact anything that could be owned by someone at their time of death. In disposing of such assets the policy is to optimise the monies raised for the benefit of the public purse and any entitled family, if traced after the administration of the estate. In certain cases the department may make discretionary payments.

In many cases this will be the only solution for someone who dies intestate but ideally everyone should make a will, so that when they die their wishes about the disposal of their financial and personal goods can be distributed according to their wishes. And of course, if there are no family members alive to inherit, naming one or more favourite charities to inherit will ensure that the donor’s name lives on through their generosity.

If you wish to find out more about the work of the Government Legal Department (Bona Vacantia Division), see www.bonavacantia.gov.uk/output

Sharon Graham
Joint Editor, Jewish Charity Guide

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