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.
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Higher category: Law and Common law
Bona vacantia is applied according to the laws of the relevant province, and the roots of the laws may be traced to Roman law.
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.
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
For most of England and Wales, the Bona Vacantia Division of the Government Legal Department is responsible for dealing with bona vacantia assets on behalf of the Crown. If no heirs to an estate can be found then the assets are realised and the balance is transferred to HM Treasury. The division deals only with solvent estates whose net value exceeds £500. The assets of dissolved companies automatically pass to the Crown by law. They are realised by the division and the revenue passed to the Exchequer, although 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.
Cornwall and Lancashire
For assets based in Cornwall and within the traditional boundaries of the county palatine of Lancashire, Farrer & Co solicitors deal with bona vacantia on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall and the Duchy of Lancaster respectively. In both cases, if no rightful owner is found for the assets, the assets legally pass to the respective 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, while in Cornwall The Duke of Cornwall's Benevolent Fund receives the assets.
When the English King established in 1230 the Office of the Royal Escheator to centralize bona vacantia, Earl Edmund of Cornwall pressed his claim to bona vacantia by having his viscounts continue to handle them. Until the 1337 and 1338 Duchy Charters, the issue was contentious between the king and earl. In the Duchy Charters, the King formalized the bona vacantia right with the duchy.
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.
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).
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.
- The Treasurer (New Zealand) – Unclaimed Money
- treasury.govt.nz Archived November 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
- "Laws surrounding Duchy of Cornwall seen as 'mysterious, complex and arcane'". Western Morning News. Local World. November 19, 2011. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
- Bona Vacantia Division. gov.uk https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/bona-vacantia. Retrieved 26 August 2015. Missing or empty
- "Bona Vacantia and the Duke of Cornwall's Benevolent Fund". Duchy of Cornwall.org. Duchy of Cornwall. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
- "Bona Vacantia". duchyoflancaster.co.uk. Duchy of Lancaster. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
- "Inside the Duchy of Cornwall - part four". Western Morning News. Local World. July 16, 2015. Retrieved August 25, 2015.
- 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