Bona vacantia is the Crown’s statutory right to the property of an intestate when no relatives are entitled to it. In most jurisdictions when the intestate is not survived by a spouse or partner, lineal descendants, including but not limited to their children, parents or remoter eligible relatives, the State or Territory is entitled to the intestate’s estate by bona vacantia
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.
Duchy of Lancaster
The Duchy of Lancaster valued recently at £652.8 million provides income to the reigning monarch. Incorporating over 45,000 acres in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire, with extensive retail and commercial holdings that generate most of the duchy’s income. The duchy holds office space on London’s Strand which includes the land for the hotel, Savoy. In 2021/22, the Queen received approximately £21.98 million from the Duchy.
Won by Henry III after the Barons’ War and given to his son Edmund in 1265. It wasn’t until the Great Charter of the Duchy in 1399 that Henry IV specified that the inheritance of the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster should be held separately from all other Crown possessions, and should descend to Henry’s male heir.
In 1461 Edward IV incorporated the inheritance under the title of the Duchy of Lancaster, and stipulated that it be held separate from other inheritances by him and his heirs, but would however be inherited with the Crown, to which it was forfeited on the attainder of Henry VI.
The Crown Lands Act 1702 decreed that the Sovereign should only receive income and not capital from the Duchy.
In 1760 the Duchy’s separate identity preserved it from being surrendered with the Crown Estate in exchange for the civil list. It is thought that the reason the Duchy wasn’t surrendered was that at the time it returned meagre annual profits.
If someone dies intestate without known beneficiaries, their property passes to the Crown or the Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster as bona vacantia. Similarly, assets held by a company at its dissolution, pass to the Crown or Duchies as bona vacantia where they are not held on trust.
Bona vacantia originated under the Royal Prerogative and in some respects, this remains the position although the right to bona vacantia is now based on statute: Administration of Estates Act 1925 and the Companies Act 2006.
Where a company is wound up, disclaimed freehold property situated in the Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster will normally escheat to the Duchy. Additionally, freehold property owned by a foreign dissolved company may also escheat to the Duchies.
Unlike other estates, bona vacancies operates to the advantage of the Duke in the Duchy of Lancaster rather than the Crown. Proceeds from bona vacantia are divided between the three Lord-Lieutenants of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Lancashire who receive an allocation annually from the Lancaster Benevolent Fund to support charities and other benevolent organisations within their County.