Bona Vacantia, Benevolence and the Duchy of Cornwall

Prince Charles as Duke of Cornwall is the largest private landowner in England. The Duchy of Cornwall, run as a private estate consists of 135,000 acres, spread across 23 counties; the land and its assets ( which include The Oval cricket ground in London) were worth over £1billion in the last financial year. The Duchy is not a corporation and therefore not subject to Corporation tax

The Duchy of Cornwall was created in 1337 by Edward III, as a personal endowment for his eldest son and presumptive heir Edward of Woodstock (often referred to as the Black Prince). In the ensuing seven centuries, its lands and revenues have belonged to the male heir to the throne.

The Duke of Cornwall is the beneficiary of a number of the Duchy’s ancient provisions; he

• owns 60% of the Cornish foreshore and the bed (”fundus”) of navigable rivers.

• has the right of wreck to ships wrecked in Cornish waters that remain unclaimed at the end of one year.

• has the right to ”royal fish” deemed ”uniquely suited for the monarch’s use” including whale, sturgeon and porpoises.

Similarly, when a resident of the Duchy dies intestate with no surviving relatives the intestate estate passes bona vacantia to the Duchy of Cornwall. Bona vacantia is the Crown’s statutory right to the property of an intestate. If the legislated order for relatives has been exhausted then the State is entitled to the estate of the intestate.

Prince Charles himself does not keep the money, instead after retaining some in reserve in case of any future claims the balance is donated to the Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund, which has donated in excess of £850,000 over the past seven years for the benefit of local communities in the South West of England.

The Crown is legally exempt from taxes; the Queen does not pay income taxes, and certain portions of the Prince of Wales’s income (including that from the Duchy of Cornwall) is also exempt. However, the Queen and the Prince of Wales make voluntary payments in lieu of tax (plus income tax on the Duchy’s surplus).

In modern society, the reduction in the size of the average family and the higher incidence of single-child families the possibility of an intestate estate passing to the state or territory is now more likely than it once was.

In most Australian jurisdictions there is a provision that where no statutory relatives are entitled, the Crown may, out of a bona vacantia estate, provide for dependents, whether kindred or not, of the intestate and any other persons for whom the intestate might reasonably have been expected to make provision.

In NSW, for example, the State is entitled to the whole of the intestate estate where the intestate dies leaving no person entitled to the estate. However, a written application can be made to the Crown Solicitor for the waiver of the State’s rights to an intestate estate.

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