King Charles’ Estate raking in bona vacantia – the assets of dead citizens without inheritors
Taiwo Oshodi – 11 December 2023
King Charles’ estate has been found to be collecting the assets of people who die without inheritors. Though it has been stated that attributed revenues are donated to charity, in reality, most of the profits go towards renovating properties owned and rented out by the King.
Now, under English law, a property must be owned by an identifiable entity, so there are mechanisms in place to resolve the issue of when there is a vacancy in ownership. An old Latin phrase roughly translated to mean “empty goods,” Bona Vacantia is the name given to ownerless property; these include ownerless property either as a result of a lack of heir to a property, or, in cases where a company that owns assets is dissolved. Most relevant in this case is freehold property – property that is owned outright, including the land it sits on top of. When no heirs can be found for freehold land, ‘escheat’ happens where the land is managed by the Crown Estate aside from in particular jurisdictions. In this case it is the Duchy of Lancashire that takes the reigns, and transfer of ownership occurs under the Administration of Estates Act 1925 and the Companies Act 1985.
As of the 8th of December, the list of unclaimed estates held by the Treasury Solicitor amounts to over 6,100 – over the last ten years this has amounted to more than £60 million in funds for the Crown. In the case of the Duchy of Lancaster, they claim that, after deducted costs, the remaining money is distributed among registered charities, including the Duchy of Lancaster Jubilee Trust which was created “to support the maintenance and preservation for the public benefit of heritage assets across the Duchy estates.”
Guidance on an internal memo from the Duchy on what these heritage assets might pertain to include a much broader definition of ‘heritage assets’ than simply listed buildings – those outlined by the National Heritage List for England. Bona vacantia is now being used on a portfolio covering buildings in conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty. This has resulted in money from bona vacantia being spent on properties for profit under the King’s portfolio, on the premise that the money is being spent on heritage assets “for the public benefit.”
Of course, all of this is perfectly legal, with authority given via royal sign manuals dated in 1987 and 2019, but it does raise questions about legislation dating back to feudal times, its utility for the public good, and the authority of the Crown in guiding real estate and wider policy in a legal framework…
If you're interested, you can read more about property law on the solicitor's side of the profession here, or more about the property bar here.