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Bona vacantia (Latin for "ownerless goods") is a legal concept associated with property that has no owner. It exists in various jurisdictions, with consequently varying application, but with origins mostly in English law.
Bona vacantia is applied according to the laws of the relevant province, the roots of the laws tracing back to Roman law.
England and Wales
- Assets of dissolved companies that have failed to be distributed
- Assets of dissolved unincorporated associations that have failed to be distributed
- Assets of the estates of deceased persons that have failed to be distributed due to intestacy and a lack of known persons entitled to inherit
- Some failed trust property
In England and Wales, the Bona Vacantia Division of the Treasury Solicitor's Department of the UK Government is responsible for dealing with bona vacantia assets except in the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall. The Treasury Solicitor is appointed by Royal Warrant to be the Crown's Nominee for the collection of bona vacantia.
The Division has a detailed website which sets out full practices and procedures. In estates cases the Division first seeks (by advertisement and some enquiry) heirs to an estate and if none come to their notice then the assets are realised and the balance transferred to HM Treasury. The Division deals only with solvent estates whose net value exceeds £500.
In dissolved company cases the assets automatically pass to the Crown by law, are realised by the Division and the revenue passed to the Exchequer. The Division has a power to disclaim onerous assets Liabilities associated with assets do not automatically follow those assets into bona vacantia. Care should be taken to distinguish between assets remaining when dissolution commences (which, e.g., might be distributed to shareholders or others in that process) and those that for various valid reasons remain undistributed at the end of dissolution. Some assets might only come to notice after dissolution has taken place.
In the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster, a firm of solicitors, Farrer & Co, deals with bona vacantia. In both cases, if no rightful owner is found for the assets, the assets legally pass to the Duchies. Current practice for both is to donate these assets to charity. In Lancaster the beneficiaries are the Duchy of Lancaster Benevolent Fund and the Duchy of Lancaster Jubilee Trust, and in Cornwall The Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund receives the assets.
In Guernsey, assets of dissolved companies may become bona vacantia under s.369 of the Companies (Guernsey) Law, as amended, and are administered by the Receiver-General (HM Procureur).
Similarly to England, unclaimed money will mostly revert to the Crown who may then make further distribution. Unclaimed property other than money might also be claimed on behalf of the Crown but (as with the UK jurisdictions) this is not inevitable.
In Northern Ireland, bona vacantia is dealt with by the Crown Solicitor as the Treasury Solicitor's agent. The value of the assets collected in Northern Ireland are separately identified in the annual report of HM Procurator General and Treasury Solicitor Accounts for the Crown’s Nominee.
In Scotland, bona vacantia deals with assets of dissolved companies, the assets of missing persons and lost or abandoned property; lost or abandoned property involves a statutory saving for the Crown in ss.67-79 of the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982. It is mostly controlled by Common Law with some statutes dealing with specific matters such as lost property; the concept also extends to such matters as Treasure Trove The separate doctrine of ultimus haeres states that the assets of those who die intestate leaving no other person entitled to inherit pass to the Crown. Both of these rights, together with treasure trove, are administered by the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer, an office held by the Crown Agent, the senior official in the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS). Bona vacantia assets in Scotland are not aggregated with those from elsewhere in the United Kingdom, being paid directly into the Scottish Consolidated Fund.
United States of America
Bona vacantia was inherited from English Common Law and continues in the form of lost, mislaid, and abandoned property, applied only to personal property that has left the owner's possession, as opposed to an estate left in intestacy after death. Intangible personal assets such as checks, account balances, and securities are under unclaimed property law, varying by state. The states do not take permanent possession, but act as the custodian of the property in perpetuity on behalf of the rightful owner.
- Claims Conference - The Claims Conference administers compensation funds and recovers unclaimed Jewish property.
- Official Website of the Duchy of Lancaster
- Official Website of the Duchy of Cornwall
- HM Procurator General and Treasury Solicitor - Accounts for the Crown’s Nominee for the year ended 31 March 2010
- Official Website of the Duchy of Lancaster and Official Website of the Duchy of Cornwall
- The Treasurer (New Zealand) - Unclaimed Money
- Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service - Bona Vacantia
- http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2003/11/18319/27604 - Review of Treasure Trove Arrangements in Scotland
- Official Website of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service of Scotland
- British Columbia, Ministry of Finance and Corporate Relations - Unclaimed Intangible Property Administration in British Columbia