Intestacy and Bona Vacantia

Despite best efforts to convince the population to make a will, the majority of people end up never getting around to this simple and inexpensive task.

For small, tightly known families, an intestate death is no real problem; next of kin are close at hand to organise funerals, dispose of assets and divide up personal possessions and money to the immediate next of kin.

For those people who die with no obvious family the dealing with their estate and even their funeral opens up a whole new world which few are aware of, or even care about.

Currently over 14,000 estates are being looked after by HM Government Legal Department more commonly known as BV (Bona Vacantia). They have estates referred to them by nursing homes, lawyers or more commonly the bereavement office of local town and city councils or hospitals.

Funerals and cremations are normally organised by the local bereavement service, which usually pay for a basic burial or cremation and expect to be repaid from the estate.

“Bona Vacantia”, in simple language means “ownerless goods”, and in the context of an intestate estate, “no heirs.” In truth there may be entitled heirs, who could be anywhere in the world, or just down the road.

There could be a single beneficiary or dozens.

The value of the estate is not known until claimed, but over 3,000 estates are known to be worth over £15,000 and a few many millions.

Under the law, an estate should be claimed within 12 years of intestate’s death, but BV can extend this to 30 years or more at their discretion.

Even if there are no entitled relatives, BV has discretional powers to pay part or all of an estate to someone close to the intestate to whom they may have left money or indeed their entire estate “had they made a will.”

An entire industry has evolved in recent years generally known as “Heir Hunting”, popularised by the BBC TV series “Heir Hunters”, whereby heirs to intestate estates held by BV are tracked down on contingency commission based contracts.

With a growing interest in Family History, many people have tried their hand at probate research and cracking old BV cases – many successfully.

In an unregulated industry with a wide range of quality in probate research, the Heir Hunters Association was established in 2009 to recruit and educate new researchers to cope with the increased demand.

Many new breed “Heir Hunters” work part time from home as an extension of a keen interest in family history research. Many have forged new careers and formed successful businesses. Master Classes organised by the HHA have helped educate and improve standards.

An increasing number of heirs “self-claim” often oblivious to their legal obligations when faced with the reality of tracing others entitled to share in what can be a sizeable fortune. Contrary to some people’s belief, claiming an estate does not mean all the money is yours, or indeed any of it.

A claimant only has to prove they are a blood relative of the deceased and thus have a prior claim to the State who pocket the funds, if no heirs exist or come forward. A few have been shocked to find that another relative has a better claim and entitled often to all of the estate, and they left with nothing despite funding the costs of a claim.

With much fraud within the industry, HHA in 2011 sponsored the creation and development of an independent, non-profit organisation FPAR (Federation of Probate and Asset Researchers Ltd), which has brought many criminals to justice and mediated disputes between heirs and probate researchers, or two research firms, locked in an argument.

FPAR whilst not having legal powers nevertheless has proved it has earned considerable respect with wide influence in the probate research industry and the media.

An increasing number of intestate cases are referred direct to the HHA which ensures estates are dealt with far quicker than the traditional BV route with associated costs, delays and complex procedural hoops.

HHA and FPAR together continue to expand and explore new business opportunities for their growing memberships both in the UK and Abroad.

Maurice S Clarke is Founding Chair of the Heir Hunters Association and current Chair of the probate industries independent watchdog FPAR who together represent over 500 probate research and administration firms worldwide.

This article was submitted to be published by the Heir Hunters Association (HHA) as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills & Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills & Probate.

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