DEFINITION of Bona Vacantia

Bona vacantia, or “vacant goods” in Latin, is a legal term for the situation in which property is left without any clear owner. The precise handling of such property varies depending on the jurisdiction. In most cases, the property is held by the government, and may be recovered by rightful owners or heirs.


Bona vacantia property, which remains unclaimed after a certain period of time, sometimes reverts to government ownership. In other cases, the government is obliged to serve as custodian for bona vacantia property into perpetuity. The concept of bona vacantia has its origins in English common law.

Situations in Which Property Can Become Bona Vacantia

Common situations where property can become abandoned are when a person dies with no known heirs or next of kin; when a business or unincorporated association is dissolved the assets thereof are not distributed appropriately; in some cases, when a trust fails; or when the property owner leaves a jurisdiction without leaving any contact information.

Jurisdictions in Which Bona Vacantia Applies

As an English common law doctrine, bona vacantia applies in the United Kingdom, where it is also enshrined in statute, as well as other former British colonies and members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, including Scotland, Ireland, the Crown dependencies, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America.

In the U.S. bona vacantia property is handled at the state level, with most bona vacantia, except for estates left in intestacy, handled as lost, mislaid or abandoned property. Each state maintains its own unclaimed property office, where it is possible to search for bona vacantia property that may belong to you. States do not assume ownership of such property, but merely act as custodians for it until such time as the owner claims it.

For bona vacantia estates left in intestacy, all 50 states have procedures for distributing the estate to the deceased owner’s heirs. The state will decide who inherits the property, usually prioritizing close relatives, such as spouses or civil partners and children, then more distant relatives such as parents, siblings, grandparents and their descendants. Some states allow the descendants of the deceased’s spouse who are not also the descendants of the deceased to inherit if there are no other heirs. If there are no heirs, bona vacantia escheats to the state.