Bona Vacantia Estates and Missing Wills

Bona Vacantia and missing WillsWhy your estate could be declared Bona Vacantia

A Bona Vacantia estate is one where the deceased person dies without a Will and there are no family members to inherit their assets. If you’ve ever watched the BBC’s “Heir Hunters” series about genealogists racing to find relatives to claim Bona Vacantia estates, you’ll be familiar with the situation.

If no living relatives can be found the deceased person’s estate is declared ‘Bona Vacantia’ (which means ‘ownerless’). The Government takes charge of it through its Bona Vacantia Division* – it’s a bit like a Lost Property office for deceased people’s estates.

“Anyone who thinks they might have a right to claim a share of a Bona Vacantia estate must first check whether they come within the official list of persons entitled to a share”

Where there are no close blood relatives to inherit an estate more distantly related family members can apply to claim the assets. There’s an official list of classes of relatives who can share an intestate estate**. They’re listed in a strict order of priority, for example, children of a half brother or half sister of the deceased have more rights to the estate than a first cousin.


Anyone who wants to claim a share of a Bona Vacantia estate must make their claim known to the Bona Vacantia Division. Successful claims made within 12 years of the administration of the estate being completed are also entitled to interest on the money.

The Bona Vacantia Division publishes a list of unclaimed estates which is updated daily. Unless you know that a relative has died without making a Will it’s probably unlikely you would think to check the list –  but genealogists do. So, if you’re the distant relative of someone whose estate appears on the Bona Vacantia list it’s most likely that you would find out about it through a genealogist. If the genealogist tells you that you could be entitled to an inheritance windfall you’re bound to feel intrigued, even excited. But hang on – it might not be correct.


Is it really a Bona Vacantia estate?

I said the Bona Vacantia Division only deals with estates where there’s no Will. That’s right in principle, but in actual fact, they sometimes include an estate on the Bona Vacantia list where there is a Will – it’s just not been found.  If there’s no evidence of a Will at the deceased person’s home or other likely places such a local solicitor then it’s often assumed the deceased person didn’t make a Will. If the person made a Will but it isn’t found their estate has to be administered in accordance with the intestacy rules.

Lots of people are secretive about their Wills and not everyone is careful with their paperwork. It’s surprisingly common for people to make Wills and not keep a record of where their Wills are stored. A Will might come to light years after the person died.


Here’s what can happen in a bona vacantia case if the Will is missing

Jim discovers his late mother’s half-sister Doris, who he’s not had any contact with for years has died. She apparently died without a Will and her estate has appeared on the Bona Vacantia list. Jim puts in a claim for the estate which will give him a windfall of £150,000. But, Doris did make a Will years before her death leaving her estate to an old friend, Enid and a local charity. Unless Enid and the charity can locate Doris’ Will then Jim is going to take their inheritances under the intestacy rules.

Jim could also be at risk. If Jim makes a claim for Doris’ estate and later (possibly years later) Enid or the charity find Doris’ missing Will they can make Jim pay back the money to Doris’ estate.

All of this uncertainty, time and expense could be avoided by following a few simple steps…


How to avoid missing Wills

  • Ask your solicitor to register your Will through one of the national Will register schemes
  • Tell your executors where the Will is stored
  • Keep a copy of the signed Will with other important documents e.g birth and marriage certificates
  • Review and update your Will regularly – at least every five years.



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Meet the Author: Rosamund Evans solicitor TEP.

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*  Bona Vacantia Division is part of the Government Legal Department

** An intestate estate is one where there isn’t a valid Will – more information