What Is the Unclaimed Estates Register?

You may be familiar with the term “heir hunters” from the BBC television programme, which tries to track down missing heirs to a deceased person’s estate, but how much do you know about the unclaimed estates register? And what do you need to make a claim, or start the probate process following a loved one’s death?

With over 9,000 unclaimed estates in the UK, it’s no small matter. The average estate of an adult is worth around £150,000, bringing the total value of unclaimed estates potentially into the billions. This means that the property, personal belongings, money, and other assets owned by these 9,000 individuals are being held in limbo instead of being passed onto their loved ones or friends.

The process of checking the unclaimed estate list is uncomplicated, so it is well worth your time – you never know, you could find that a huge sum of money is meant your way.

In this article, we cover everything you need to know about the unclaimed estates register:

  • What is an Unclaimed Estate?
  • What Happens to Unclaimed Estates?
  • Who can Claim for an Unclaimed Estate?
  • How do you Make a Claim for an Unclaimed Estate?
  • How to Refer an Estate
  • How to Make Sure your Estate Doesn’t go Unclaimed
  • Inheritance Planning with Legacy Wills & Probate

What is an Unclaimed Estate?

Usually when someone dies, a will sets out who has the legal right to deal with the estate (known as the “executor”) and distribute the estate (money, property, and possessions) to the named “beneficiaries.”

However, an unclaimed estate can occur when a person dies intestate (i.e., without leaving a will) or when an old will is in place and the person’s intended beneficiaries are dead. This occurs more often than you might think – people leave it too late to produce a will or feel that it isn’t worth doing, particularly if they have no spouse or children alive.

When this happens, the family of the deceased must follow the rules of intestacy, which set out the order in which they should receive assets in the estate.

The general rules of intestacy are as follows:

  • The first claim to an estate is the person’s spouse or civil partner, followed by any children they have.
  • If this is not applicable (i.e., there is no spouse, civil partner, or child), then anyone who is descended from a grandparent of the deceased is entitled to a share of the estate. For example, this could be cousins or the off-spring of cousins.
  • Those who are related by marriage are not entitled to a share of the estate.
  • Adopted children have the same rights as if they had been born into their adoptive family, but they have no rights to an estate of their original birth family.
  • If you have a right to a share of an inheritance, you will need evidence to prove your relationship to the decease, such as a family tree.

What Happens to Unclaimed Estates?

If there are no known kin alive to inherit the intestate estate or if the beneficiaries have passed away, then the deceased’s assets are passed to the Crown as ownerless property. In this event, the unclaimed estate is referred to as “Bona Vacantia.”

How long are unclaimed estates held?

Relatives have twelve years to claim for their inheritance after the death of a loved one, but estates can be claimed for up to thirty years if the correct proof and documentation can be produced.

The inheritance will go to HM Treasury if the estate has not been claimed after this time.

Where can you see a list of unclaimed estates?

The Bona Vacantia estates are published online by the Government, which is updated every day. You can view the unclaimed estate list for free (with no search limits) on GOV.UK, where it includes older cases and ones that have been recently referred.

Unclaimed estates that are valued at over £500 are dealt with by the Bona Vacantia Division of the GLD (Government Legal Department). According to them, over 80% of cases referred are not Bona Vacantia as there are traceable relatives. For this reason, referral to GLD should be a last resort once all avenues to trace relatives are exhausted.

Who can Claim for an Unclaimed Estate?

You could find yourself being an heir to an unclaimed estate of an estranged relative, whether that be someone you lost touch with or someone you never knew existed

Section 46 of the Administration of Estates Act 1925 contains the order of potential beneficiaries to an unclaimed estate in England and Wales. The list (in order) is as follows:

  1. Husband, wife, or civil partner
  2. Children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc (including adopted children of the deceased family)
  3. Mother or father
  4. Siblings who share both the same mother and father, or their children (nieces and nephews)
  5. Half-brothers, half-sisters, or their children (nieces and nephews of the half blood or their children)
  6. Grandparents
  7. Uncles, aunts, or their children
  8. Half uncles, half aunts, or their children

Occasionally, people entitled from the list outlive the deceased but have passed away before they could claim the inheritance. When this occurs, their executor can make the claim and distribute any inheritance to the entitled deceased’s own beneficiaries.

What’s more, grants can be made from the deceased’s estate to people who are not on the list but who believe themselves entitled to a share of the estate. For instance, they could be an unmarried partner (girlfriend or boyfriend), a close care provider, or a charity that cared for the deceased.

How do you Make a Claim for an Unclaimed Estate?

Once you think that you qualify as an ‘entitled relative’ for an estate listed as Bona Vacantia, there are generally two ways to claim for it:

  1. Apply directly to the Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) – members of the public can review the list and produce evidence to make a claim
  2. Use a genealogist – they are private companies who trace possible entitled relatives for commercial gain. They usually take a percentage of the deceased’s estate when the tracing has been successful, but they do not work for the BVD. They often make enquiries for relatives after BVD lists an estate though.

Evidence to make a claim for an unclaimed estate

If you believe you are entitled to claim an estate and wish to apply directly to the BVD, you will be asked to send a family tree that shows your relation to the deceased person.

Other details that must be included are the dates of births, marriages and deaths of those on the tree.

If it seems that you might be entitled to claim the estate, the BVD will then ask you to provide documentary evidence that proves your entitlement:

  • Full birth certificates (showing the name of the parents) and marriage certificates of each person in-between you and the deceased.
  • Documents of identification that show proof of your name (dated within the last three months).
  • A complete explanation (supported by evidence) of any inconsistencies in the documents you have supplied with your claim, or any missing documents. Please note though that these may prevent your claim from being accepted.

Third parties who represent a claimant (such as a genealogist) will need to provide written confirmation that they have been instructed by a claimant to make a claim. For instance, this could be in the form of a contract signed by the claimant, as long as it contains a clause confirming that the claimant has asked the firm to make the claim on their behalf.

How to Refer an Estate

Sometimes, there are cases where friends of a deceased know that a relative exists but have no way of contacting them. This can include children or grandchildren who have moved away and lost touch with the estate owner, for example.

If you think that an estate is unclaimed but is not on the unclaimed estate list, you should ‘refer’ the estate but only if the deceased didn’t leave a will, left more funds than debt (otherwise making the estate ‘insolvent’), and if there are no blood relatives.

To ‘refer’ an estate, you can download a form on GOV.UK or on the Bona Vacantia List website.

How to Make Sure Your Estate Doesn’t go Unclaimed

To prevent your estate from being unclaimed, there are several things you can do:

  • Talk with your family about your assets – discuss insurance and information about your bank accounts.
  • Keep accurate records – including account numbers, user names, passwords, and insurance policies.
  • Keep a list of every asset in your estate and store the latest account statements, insurance policies, wills, trusts, and any other important documents in a safe place that is known to your family.
  • Make sure your beneficiary information is updated for insurance policies and retirement savings.
  • When you move properties, make sure you promptly inform banks and any other businesses that issue interest.
  • If you start a new job, make sure that your old employer has your correct home address in case they need to send payroll or reimbursement checks to you.
  • Make at least one transaction with all of your financial accounts each year to show you have not abandoned it – if a bank account has not been used in a long period of time, the bank or building society may declare it as dormant. Similarly, you should always open mail from financial institutions and respond to queries about account balances to prevent your account from being closed from lack of activity.
  • Prepare and file a will that details how you want to distribute your assets.

Why you should create a will

Ultimately, the best way to ensure your estate goes claimed is by making a will. Creating one is particularly important if you have few or no living relatives, as your estate could end up unclaimed without a will.

You can set out in your will exactly who you want to inherit what from you – there is no requirement for beneficiaries to be related to you. Choose to leave your estate to a friend, partner, charities, or other organisations.

What’s more, you can opt to leave specific items or sums of money to certain beneficiaries, or you can leave them a percentage of your estate.

Whoever you choose to leave your assets to and however you divide your estate, make sure your wishes are clear with a comprehensive will so that there is no uncertainty for your loved ones when the time comes.

Inheritance Planning with Legacy Wills & Probate

Making a claim on an estate can be a daunting and complex task to face alone, so we recommend that you seek legal advice before trying to do so.

Legacy Wills and Probate gives you a caring and personal service in creating a will. With our many years of experience, you can trust us for stress-free advice at a time of important and difficult decision making. We ensure that you and your family are taken care of in the best way possible.

So, whether you want to write a will or have advice on claiming and referring unclaimed estates, we can help. Don’t hesitate to call our friendly team today for guidance or information.