Of course one of the reasons that properties become empty is that a single owner-occupier dies. A number of people who contact us at the Empty Homes Agency are under the impression that when this happens the property doesn’t belong to anybody and it’s up for grabs. I’m sorry to disappoint again but ..no. The concept of ownerless property Bona Vacantia (Latin for ownerless property) does exist in British law, but more on that later. In fact the truth is weirder than you could imagine.
Firstly most people die having left a valid will. Where this happens an executor is appointed and the property is disposed of in the way the deceased wished. This process is called probate.
Sometimes the will expresses wishes that are ambiguous or cannot happen, and quite often people die without having left a will. Where this happens the property (estate) is said to be intestate. Where this happens administrators are appointed and the property is disposed of according to rules set down in the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975. This generally ensures that property is left to the deceased closest relatives.
In some cases people die with no valid will and no close relatives. This is where Bona Vacantia comes in. Under a little known feudal principle called Escheats, if no valid owner can be found the ownership passes to the crown. Of course Buckingham palace doesn’t get directly involved, the process is carried out by the Bona Vacantia division of the Treasury Solicitor. They make an effort to find the rightful heirs of the property and if unsuccessful dispose of it and treat the proceeds as general taxation.
In Cornwall and Lancashire, or to be precise the land covered by the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster the property passes not to the crown but to the Monarch personally through the Duchies of Cornwall and Lancaster. The Monarch has appointed a firm of solicitors Farrer and co to manage the process in a similar way to Treasury solicitors. Both Duchies claim that the proceeds of property is donated to charity and does not personally benefit the Queen or the Prince of Wales.
So for those morbid souls looking to pounce on an ownerless property after the owner had died - hard luck; the Queen Prince Charles and Alistair Darling have beaten you to it.