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There’s a fair few in the purse of the real-life heir to the throne, who also happens to be the local duke of Cornwall, UK. A little-known quirk of tradition means that those who die there without a will or traceable relatives will have their unclaimed estate go to the Duchy of Cornwall, a major commercial property empire that generates income for Prince Charles, pocket money for his sons and not a single penny for corporation tax.
In the past 11 years, the Duchy of Cornwall has received £3.4m in “ownerless goods” or “bona vacantia”, as it’s commonly known. In the 2019/20 financial year alone, £201,000 was hoovered up from the deceased and dissolved companies. Some would say it’s a far cry from the cosy image of Prince Charles flogging organic biscuits in Waitrose for Duchy Originals, a separate company.
Where does this money from unclaimed estates go? Amanda Foster, the senior communications officer for the Households of TRH Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall, says Charles “chooses to donate all monies from bona vacantia to the Duchy of Cornwall Benevolent Fund, from which donations are made to local communities in the South West of England”.
In practice, the Benevolent Fund only receives “surplus receipts” of bona vacantia, as stated in the Duchy’s annual accounts. This is because most of the money is tied up with creditors in case any relatives of the deceased make a claim and there are costs involved when handling this money, like administration. Since 2009, just £1.9m has been left for charities and recent beneficiaries of the Benevolent Fund include the Cornwall Red Squirrel Project, The Salvation Army and Truro Cathedral.
Should an aristocrat have any say in deciding who is worthy of the spoils from those who die lonely and without heirs? Charles is, after all, the man who is estimated by one campaign group to have only clocked up 74.5 days of work last year, earning £38,000 an hour – an achievement that still saw him dubbed him “Britain’s hardest-working royal”.
The bona vacantia situation in Cornwall is also out of kilter with the rest of England and Wales. If somebody dies with no will or next of kin, their estate is usually handled by the government’s Treasury Solicitor on behalf of the Crown. If no heirs emerge, the Treasury Solicitor hands the unclaimed estate to the Chancellor, who puts it toward reducing the national debt – not toward charities selected by a royal who, until recently, was reportedly unfamiliar with clingfilm.
Bona vacantia is currently administered by Farrer & Co on behalf of the Duchy of Cornwall. By law, both the Duchy and the Treasury Solicitor allow 12 years for a relative to make a claim, but discretionary payments can be made within 30 years of the deceased’s death.
We asked Lucinda van Kuffeler, an associate of Farrer & Co, what lengths the law firm goes to finding any next of kin. “We make appropriate enquiries as to the existence of kin according to internal guidelines,” she explains. “These vary according to the particular circumstances of the estate, and include making enquiries with those who have referred the estate to us, instructing firms of genealogists to search for kin on our behalf, and advertising the estate in newspapers – national and local to the deceased’s last address.”
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Farrer & Co. But some are sceptical about the system, this process and whether the overall transparency is adequate. Danny Curren, who is managing director of Finders International and appears on BBC’s Heir Hunters, says: “In our experience the Duchy of Cornwall advertise bona vacantia estates only very periodically. It seems that Farrer & Co […] advertise these in local printed papers and very occasionally in national papers, but not really online.
“As a private business, it is not subject to FOI requests, so I couldn’t say how many estates are administered every year, only that in my 25+ years of working in this area of professional probate genealogy, we have only worked on a very small number of Duchy of Cornwall cases.”
As it stands, the current practice means the Duchy is squandering any opportunity for Cornish bona vacantia to pay off national debt or be ring-fenced for more creative uses. The anti-poverty charity Quaker Social Action has outlined how bona vacantia could help families struggling with funeral costs by topping up the Social Fund Funeral Payment, a pot of money that has fallen way below funeral cost inflation. [Full disclosure: I used to work as fundraising officer for Quaker Social Action.]
The unclaimed estate sucked up by the Duchy in the past decade could give 3,432 grieving families payments of £1,000 each – arguably a better use of funds than preserving red squirrels.
Supporters of the Duchy argue that charities will suffer if the benevolent fund ceases to operate, but an alternative source of funding emerged in September when The Telegraph reported on a source claiming that Prince Harry will no longer receive an estimated £2.1m in annual pocket money from his father’s Duchy.
It’s more than enough to cover Charles’ charitable work in Cornwall, squirrels included, but there’s no law is in place that commits the Duchy of Cornwall to charitable giving at all. If Charles, or his successor, had a change of heart, he could spend the spoils down the pub.
Where the money goes isn’t the main concern for Graham Smith, CEO of Republic, a pressure group that advocates for the monarchy’s abolition. “The thing is, it's not their money,” says Smith. “They've not earned it. So it doesn't really matter where they are spending it. It is not theirs to spend.”
For Smith, the way ahead is outlined by Republic’s campaign to “take back the Duchy” and effectively renationalise it. “If it is a private estate, why is other people's money going into a private estate?” he asks. “And if it's not then why is it not going to the Treasury?”
In future, we can hope that Prince Charles’ finances will face the same tabloid scrutiny reserved for how Meghan Markle closes a car door. In the coming months, justified questions will be raised about Prince Harry’s influence as a royal with a £100m Netflix deal, but as money-making schemes go, many would argue it’s more respectable than his father’s entitlement to some dead people’s money.
Until that changes, the fate of Cornish bona vacantia rests on the charitable whims of Charles. Or at least for the time being. The Duchy’s 1337 charter means that the Duke of Cornwall is always the eldest surviving son of the monarch and heir to the throne. In other words, if Charles dies before the Queen, it won’t be Prince William getting the last say on who benefits when Cornish people die with no heirs. It will be Prince Andrew.