In my line of business as a professional probate genealogist, I am often asked: What happens to ‘ownerless properties’ i.e. when there is no next of kin to inherit them? In these situations the property reverts to the Crown, or in reality to the Bona Vacantia division of the Government Legal department.
According to the Government Legal department website; ‘If an asset becomes bona vacantia it belongs to the Crown. The Crown does not have to deal with it in any particular way, but normally an asset will either be disclaimed or sold for full market value.’
The issue that my team at Finders International has uncovered in recent years is that some local councils seem to be lumbered with the on-going maintenance costs of these empty ownerless properties despite alerting the Government Legal Department’s Bona Vacantia division that the property has reverted to the Crown.
This period of ‘inaction’ by the Government Legal Department appears to be expanding with some councils left to maintain ‘empty, ownerless properties’ for up to two years.
In November 2016 Harrow Council notified the Bona Vacantia division that the ‘ownerless’ property of the late Pamela Smith* has reverted to the Crown. However two years later, Harrow Council is still bank rolling the maintenance of the empty £600,000 property including paying the insurance for the property.
Ms Y Subotic, client finance COP/POP officer at Harrow Council, says: ‘These empty ownerless properties create an inevitable cost on the council’s already stretched resources. Although we are legally bound to monitor and maintain the upkeep until the Crown’s Bona Vacantia division takes steps and deals with administering the deceased’s estate, it comes with unavoidable costs for service provision and staffing that are levied at the council.
‘In this particular case, Bona Vacantia’s administration of the deceased’s estate has lasted over two years. We now find ourselves in a unique uncertain state that is highly improper and unsuitable.
The current wait time for Bona Vacantia’s administration of a deceased’s estate is unreasonable and ambiguous at best, costing our local authority in excess of £3,000 a year.’
Norwich City Council reports a similar situation. It is currently tasked with maintaining a property of the late Mr. Good*, who died intestate (no Will) and has no eligible next for kin to inherit it. Almost two years on, the Bona Vacantia division has still not dealt with this property, valued at around £160,000.
Despite in excess of 200,000 long-term empty dwellings in England recognised as a scandal by local government minister, Rishi Sunak, the government’s own legal department appears to sit on empty properties around the country that could in fact be sold or used as housing stock.
Every year, on behalf of local councils, we identify around 100 cases of estates that have no next of kin. At an absolute minimum we estimate that at least a third of councils in England have at least one ‘ownerless’ property that it is currently shedding out money to maintain and insure.
We all know that empty properties can have a negative impact on communities through squatting, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Surely these properties should be put back into circulation or sold to release finances in a more expedient manner. Come on Bona Vacantia division - you can do better!
For the latest list of unclaimed estates in England and Wales visit: www.bonavacantialist.co.uk
Danny Curran is founder of Finders International
*Names changed to protect identities/property