When someone dies, everything they leave behind is known as their 'Estate'. This gets passed to the people entitled to inherit it, in line with the terms of the Will (if there is one) and in line with inheritance laws. If there is no Will and no living relatives can be located, then it might not be possible for anyone to claim the Estate.
There are currently 9,254 unclaimed Estates in the UK, according to the latest version of the Government's list. This means that any property, money, personal belongings and other assets owned by these 9,254 deceased individuals are being held in limbo instead of being passed on to their loved ones or friends.
With the average Estate of an adult in the UK being worth somewhere in the region of £150,000, the total value of unclaimed Estates in the UK could run into the billions. The simple way to prevent this from happening is to make a Will.
What Happens to Unclaimed Estates?
When an Estate is unclaimed, it means that it technically isn't owned by anyone. In these circumstances the whole Estate will go to the Crown. This includes any property, money, personal possessions and anything else that the person owned when they died.
The Government publishes a list of unclaimed Estates which is updated every working day. An unclaimed Estate will remain on this list for 30 years after the date of death, after which it will be removed and it will no longer be possible for anyone to make a claim against it.
While the Estate is listed, it's possible to make a claim against it. If someone believes they are entitled to make a claim on an unclaimed Estate in England or Wales then they can do so by contacting the relevant Government legal department – the Bona Vacantia division (BVD).
Only blood relatives of the deceased are eligible to make a claim, in line with inheritance laws called the Rules of Intestacy. For example, step children are not recognised as entitled relatives and neither are partners if they were not married or in a civil partnership, regardless of the length of the relationship.
In order for a relative to make a claim for the Estate, they will need to contact BVD and send a family tree detailing how they are related to the person who has died. This will need to be very comprehensive and include all dates of births, marriages and deaths. If BVD believe that this person may be entitled to make a claim to the Estate, BVD will then ask them to send supporting evidence such as birth and marriage certificates, formal identification and a detailed explanation of any discrepancies.
This process can be complex and take a significant length of time. There is no guarantee that the claim will be approved if the relationship cannot be proven.
How to Make Sure Your Estate Doesn't Go Unclaimed
The best way to ensure that your Estate goes to those you want it to is to make a Will. This is particularly important if you have few or no living relatives, as your Estate could end up being unclaimed without a Will.
You can set out in your Will exactly who you want to inherit what from you (these are called the Beneficiaries of your Will). There is no requirement for these Beneficiaries to be related to you. You can choose to leave your Estate to friends, your partner, charities or other organisations. You can choose to leave specific items or sums of money to individual Beneficiaries or you can leave them a percentage of your Estate.
Whoever you choose to leave your Estate to and however you choose to divide it, by putting in place a properly drafted Will you can make sure your wishes are clear. With a comprehensive Will outlining exactly who should receive what, there will be no uncertainty for your loved ones when the time comes.