In English law, title to property must belong to, or ‘vest in’, an identifiable person or body. No property or goods are permitted to be ‘ownerless’. If legal ownership cannot be established by anyone else, it falls to the Crown to deal with the assets concerned. Such property or goods are known as ‘bona vacantia‘.
In most of England and Wales, the Treasury Solicitor handles such cases on behalf of the Crown. In the County Palatine however, title vests in The King in Right of His Duchy of Lancaster and is dealt with by the Solicitor for the Affairs of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Such instances include cases of intestacy where no beneficiary entitled under the law to claim an estate can be found and on dissolution of a company which still owns assets. These are administered by the Solicitor in accordance with the Administration of Estates Act 1925, the Companies Act 1985 and other relevant legislation. The procedures are substantially the same as those followed by the Treasury Solicitor elsewhere in England and Wales: www.bonavacantia.gov.uk.
While intestate estates and the assets of dissolved companies become the property of The King in Right of His Duchy, discretionary payments may be made to those who might reasonably have expected to benefit on a deceased’s death, and in the case of dissolved companies, to those who could have claimed ownership had the company not been dissolved. Again, the procedures followed are substantially the same as those followed by the Treasury Solicitor and, in a similar manner to the Treasury Solicitor, the Duchy maintains a “late claims fund” to deal with the claims of kin coming forward following the completion of the administration of an estate.
Remaining monies from bona vacantia are applied to the costs of Palatinate administration and any historical obligations, including allocations for future liabilities and the cost of processing enquiries and managing claims. After these costs have been deducted, the balance is distributed among the registered charities set up with Queen Elizabeth II’s consent, specifically:
- The Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund – established in 1993 to benefit a wide range of charitable associations and community organisations operating within the County Palatine
- The Duchy of Lancaster Jubilee Trust – established in 2001 to support the maintenance and preservation for the public benefit of heritage assets across the Duchy estates
- The Duke of Lancaster Housing Trust – incorporated in 2007 to provide affordable housing for rural communities.
Escheat is another legal principle by which the Duchy can become entitled to freehold land or property. Such property will normally escheat (return) to the Crown Estate or one of the Royal Duchies depending on where the freehold property is situated following its disclaimer by a liquidator/trustee in bankruptcy or a disclaimer by one of the other Crown bodies.
You can find out more about bona vacantia and escheat on the following website: https://www.farrer.co.uk/campaigns/bona-vacantia.
Alternatively, you can email your enquiry to either firstname.lastname@example.org or BV-Property@farrer.co.uk. Escheat enquiries should be addressed to: email@example.com.
If you prefer to write, please address your enquiry to:
The Solicitor for the Affairs of the Duchy of Lancaster, Farrer & Co LLP, 66 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3LH Tel: 020 7242 2022 www.farrer.co.uk