When somebody passes away in the UK without a valid will in place (known as dying intestate), their estate is distributed in line with the UK’s intestacy rules. These rules usually pass the deceased’s belongings on to a surviving spouse (firstly) and then any children.
It is not uncommon, however, for somebody to die with no known relatives – in this scenario, their estate (which is made up of all of their assets including property, land and money) is considered ‘ownerless’ and is therefore passed on to the Crown.
If you believe that somebody in your past – either a relative or somebody you had a meaningful relationship with – has died without any known beneficiaries, their estate might be listed as ownerless (known as ‘bona vacantia’, Latin for ownerless goods) and you could be entitled to a share of it.
If you think that you might be entitled a share of somebody’s unclaimed estate once they’ve passed away, there are a few steps you need to take:
There is a complete unclaimed estates list available on the government website. Simply download this document and use the ‘Ctrl+F’ (Cmd+F on Mac) keyboard shortcut to search for the individual’s name.
The list displays important information which might help you to identify the individual, such as their place of birth, place of death, marital status and maiden name.
Once you have identified an individual who you believe might be a distant relative, your next step is to ensure that you are entitled to a share of their estate.
If there is no will in place, the deceased’s spouse or civil partner legally has the first claim to inheritance. If there is no spouse, anyone who has descended from the deceased (child, grandchild, great-grandchild, etc.) can subsequently claim for their share, as per the order or inheritance (UK).
You have no right to claim on the estate if you are related to the deceased through marriage (i.e. you married their granddaughter).
Adopted people have the same rights as blood relatives to claim inheritance from a member of their adoptive family, but they do not have the right to claim on the estate held by a member of their original birth family. Similarly, if an adopted person dies, their birth family cannot claim on their estate.
To make a claim on an estate which you believe you have the right to, you’ll need to contact the relevant body representing the Crown – these bodies are different in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster.
Making a claim on the estate of a deceased relative can be a difficult task and will almost certainly take a great deal of time. Before doing so, we’d recommend that you fill out our short contact form to seek advice from an expert in the field of unclaimed estates who can help to identify your options.
You will be asked to provide a copy of your family tree to prove your relationship to the deceased, as well as 2 valid pieces of identification: one showing your name and one showing your name and address (dated within the last 3 months).
In some scenarios, you will be asked to provide relevant birth, death and marriage certificates.
In some cases, it isn’t just relatives who can make a claim on the estate belonging to a deceased person.
You may be in-line to receive a share of their unclaimed property and possessions if:
Making a claim on an estate of somebody you are not related to can be complicated, so you should always speak to a legal expert before doing so.
Relatives have 12 years to claim for their inheritance following the death of a loved one; however, an estate can be claimed for up to 30 years if proof and proper documentation can be produced.
If the estate remains ownerless after this period, the inheritance will go to HM Treasury.
If you know of somebody who had died without a will or any known family, you are able to refer their estate by informing the Crown (or one of the Crown’s representing bodies) about their estate.
An estate should only be referred if:
Those living in England* and Wales can refer an estate by downloading the Bona Vacantia estates referral form on the GOV.UK website, while those in Scotland or Northern Ireland should contact the relevant bodies representing the Crown.
*with exception to the Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster, who should contact the relevant representing body.
Leaving an estate to the Crown should be a worst-case scenario, where there are no known relatives to inherit somebody’s belongings. The best way to avoid dying intestate is to write a will, outlining exactly what you’d like to happen to your estate when you’re no longer here.