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What happens to an unclaimed estate if a person dies without a Will?

View profile for Caroline Johnstone
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Writing a Will is one of the most important documents anyone will make during their lifetime, and yet according to research conducted by Prudential last year, 59% of adults have not written a Will.  Dying without a Will leads to complications, but when there are no known family members it can become an even more tricky process.  Caroline Johnstone, Private Client Associate Solicitor, explains here what happens in this situation, and highlights the reasons why everyone should make a Will. 

Records recently published by the HM Treasury have shown that there are millions of pounds of unclaimed inheritance, formed from over 10,000 estates, currently waiting to be claimed from the government.  In the situation where a person dies without a Will and with no known family, their estate becomes ownerless property via Bona Vacantia.  These assets can include money, personal possessions and property, and most of the time people do not realise they could be entitled to this from a relative who has passed away.

How to register a claim for an estate

The Bona Vacantia department publishes a list, which is updated every working day, with all the unclaimed estates currently being held by the Treasury. 

The people who are entitled to claim the estate include the deceased’s (in the following order):

  • spouse or civil partner,
  • children, grandchildren, great grandchildren etc,
  • parents,
  • siblings or their children,
  • half siblings or their children
  • Uncles and Aunts or their children.

If a person believes they are entitled to an estate listed on the Bona Vacantia site, they should contact the department with details of how they are related to the person, accompanied with supporting evidence in the form of a family tree with specific dates as to marriages, births and other family deaths of everyone on the tree.  Other supporting documentation may also be requested such as birth and marriage certificates.

It can be a long process making a claim in this manner, and it will depend on any other surviving relatives and the size of the estate.   There is a time limit for claiming an estate which is generally 12 years from the date that the administration of the estate was completed, however Bona Vacantia has the discretion to extend it to 30 years. 

Why should I make a Will?

“One of the main reasons why people do not leave a Will is that they do not feel they are wealthy enough,” explains Caroline.  “If they own their own home however, they have a significant asset at their disposal that will need to be administered should they die. 

“Another reason is that people do not want to consider their death, or do not believe they will die for many years.  We see on a regular basis what happens when people do not make a Will and the heartbreak it causes for families at an already emotional time when they are coming to terms with the passing of a loved one.  It is vitally important to not only make a Will, but also update it when any life changing events happen, for example a marriage, divorce, children or grandchildren are born, or if your spouse dies before you.” 

Caroline concludes, “You may not feel it necessary to write a Will as you have no close relatives, or you are estranged from a relative.  In this instance, it’s likely you will have other places you wish your estate to go to, for example charity or a close friend.  Without a Will, your wishes will not be heard and your estate could go to someone you do not wish to claim.  Making a Will can be a daunting prospect but by coming to a solicitor who can explain how it works, discuss with you your options as to your executors and finding the best plan for your particular situation leaves our clients with great peace of mind that should the worst happen their loved ones will be taken care of.”

To make a claim to the Bona Vacantia you can email and to check the list visit the website here.  To speak to Caroline or the Private Client team about making or updating your Will, contact the team on 01329 222075 or email


This is for information purposes only and is no substitute for, and should not be interpreted as, legal advice.  All content was correct at the time of publishing and we cannot be held responsible for any changes that may invalidate this article.