Death and wills – guidance

Refer a deceased person's estate to the Treasury Solicitor

Notify the Bona Vacantia division that a person has died without leaving a will or any known blood relatives.

Overview

The Bona Vacantia division (BVD) of the Government Legal Department administers the estates of people who die without known blood relatives and without leaving a Will.

Please note that the information contained here is for guidance only and cannot cover every possible scenario that may arise when someone has died intestate and with no known entitled relatives and is not intended to be legal advice.

Before you refer an estate

BVD does not deal with estates where:

  • there is a valid Will, even if the executor and beneficiaries cannot be traced or do not wish to deal with the estate. If the executor or beneficiaries have formally renounced their interest in the estate see is there a will?
  • there are known or likely to be entitled relatives who survived the deceased even if these have subsequently died, cannot be traced or do not wish to deal with the estate
  • the net value of the estate is below £500
  • the estate is insolvent (there are more debts than assets)
  • the deceased lived outside England & Wales – you should contact the authorities in the country where they lived
  • the deceased lived within either of the Duchies of Lancaster or Cornwall at the time of their death. These estates are dealt with by Farrer & Co Solicitors
  • a death certificate is not provided. Prior to referring an estate you should contact the informant on the death certificate to find out if they themselves are entitled relatives or have any information about a Will or any relatives; if they are relatives or know of any or of a Will then you should not refer the estate to BVD
  • if a Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration has already been taken out to the estate. You should check for a grant to the estate on Find a Will. If you locate a grant you should contact the Executor or administrator of the estate named in the grant

Insolvency

An estate is insolvent if the deceased has left more debts than there is money to settle them. BVD does not deal with insolvent estates and the administration should be dealt with by the creditors of the estate (that is, anyone owed money from the estate).

If an estate is only marginally solvent, it may still be uneconomical for BVD to get involved. Therefore, BVD will not take any interest in estates where the net estate (the balance left after any debts have been paid) is under £500.

Is there a Will?

Generally, if there is a valid Will which disposes of the deceased’s estate it should not be referred to BVD.

If the executor(s) of a Will does not want to deal with the estate, they can give up their right to be the executor by signing a form of ‘renunciation’ and the beneficiaries of the will are then entitled to deal with the estate instead. The order of beneficiaries’ entitlement to deal with an estate can be found here. BVD can only deal with the estate if the beneficiaries have died before the deceased or have formally renounced their bequest and if there are no entitled relatives. BVD will not deal with the estate if the executor and/or beneficiaries cannot be traced. If you are in any doubt, you should obtain your own legal advice before referring the estate.

If there is a valid Will but the estate should be dealt with by BVD, the original Will, signed renunciations and/or death certificates of any beneficiaries who died before the deceased should be supplied when referring the case.

A Will is usually accepted as valid by the Probate Registry if it:

  • is signed by the deceased and two witnesses who were both present at the same time the deceased signed, or acknowledged their signature on, the Will
  • clearly indicates the deceased’s wishes

It does not have to:

  • be drawn up by a solicitor
  • name an executor
  • be written on a printed Will form

In some cases the Will may be legally valid but not all of the estate is disposed of by the Will as some or all of the beneficiaries have died before the deceased. If this is the case, BVD may have an interest in the estate not disposed of by the Will if there are no entitled relatives. This is called a “lapsed share” or “undisposed of residue”. If you are the executor of a Will in these circumstances, you should make enquiries for entitled relatives. If there are none, you should refer the estate to BVD.

If BVD collects the lapsed share or undisposed of residue and any entitled relatives come forward later, they will be referred to the executor(s) who should consider their claim. If the executor is satisfied they are entitled to the money then BVD will return it to them. Details of executors can be found on Grants of Probate and are available to search online.

Funerals

BVD does not become involved in making funeral arrangements or give instructions for a funeral to be held. If there is no one who is available or willing to arrange a funeral, then the Local Authority has a legal duty to do so under Section 46(i) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.

The funeral expenses are the first charge on the estate which means payment of them takes priority over all other debts. Some asset holders, such as banks or building societies, are willing to pay the funeral expenses from the deceased’s account before an administrator is appointed but ultimately that is a matter for them.

Before making funeral arrangements you may wish to check:

  • that there are sufficient funds to pay for it
  • that an asset holder is willing to settle the account from those funds

Floral, or other tributes, are the responsibility of the person ordering them, and the cost of these is not claimable from the estate.

It may be possible to claim back other expenses that could be incurred in dealing with an estate before an administrator (the person responsible for dealing with the estate) is appointed, such as the costs of a funeral tea or a Wake; receipts must always be kept in order to make a claim but you should bear in mind that reimbursement is ultimately a matter for the administrator to agree. If the administrator considers that the costs are not reasonable, were not incurred for the benefit of the estate or cannot be justified, then they may not be reimbursed.

Memorials

Whilst the reasonable cost of a memorial headstone is a legal liability of the estate, it is advisable not to give instructions for a memorial until it is known who will administer the estate and they are consulted. If entitled relatives are traced, for example, they may take a different view on a memorial. If you have already placed an order with a stonemason you could become contractually liable for payment.

Termination of tenancies

Where the deceased was living in rented accommodation it may be in the best interests of the estate for the tenancy to be terminated before an administrator has been appointed in order to prevent rent arrears building up, and to release the property back to the landlord. Considering any interest BVD may have in the estate, they would have no objection to this being done provided that:

  • the furniture and effects are disposed to the best advantage of the estate
  • the deceased’s personal papers and details of assets and liabilities are retained and protected

Notices to Quit (to terminate tenancies) should be served on the Public Trustee at

The Official Solicitor & Public Trustee
Victory House
30-34 Kingsway
London WC2B 6EX

Refer an estate

Cases should be referred to BVD as soon as possible after the death using the Case referral form - BV1A

Freedom of Information / DPA disclosure

Please note that by referring an estate to BVD you are agreeing to your contact details being provided to executors, relatives or their representatives should they claim the estate.

Write to BVD at:

Bona Vacantia - Estates

Government Legal Department
PO Box 70165
London
WC1A 9HG

Please use this email address for all enquiries relating to deceased person's estates.

You must include:

  • a fully completed BV1A referral form
  • the original death certificate (if the death certificate is not provided the referral will be rejected and papers returned)

Please do not, at the referral stage, send any documents, papers or cash, valuables or keys etc; if you do so, these will be returned to you. Valuables should be listed and protected pending an administrator being appointed.

With the exception of the funeral expenses, no assets of the estate can be collected nor liabilities paid until such time as an administrator has been appointed.

Once the referral has been received, BVD will aim to add, within five working days, details of the estate to its unclaimed list to enable executors or entitled relatives to come forward and for BVD to give up the Crown’s interest in the estate. If evidence is received that BVD has no interest in the estate they will return the referral papers to you, and the Executor or entitled relative (or their representative) will be advised that they have done so.

If a valid Will or relatives are not traced, BVD will contact you to collect anything held on behalf of the estate in order to start the administration – this can take a few months.