Thursday, 4 October 2012

Bona Vacantia, the Duchy of Cornwall, the case of the missing money

The Telegraph ran with a story about the income of the Duke of Cornwall from bona vacantia yesterday. This is when people die in Cornwall without a will or a next of kin then their possessions are deemed to be ownerless goods (the meaning of bona vacantia in Latin) and are appropriated by the Duchy of Cornwall. In England these 'goods' land, property, belongings, money and so on are appropriated by the Crown and passed over to the Treasury (i.e. the government) but in Cornwall now and since 1337 these unclaimed possessions pass to the Duchy. For centuries these assets merely became part of the heir to the English thrones fortune, but since the 1970s they have been passed to the Duchy of Cornwall's Benevolent Fund or at least that's the story. So upon reading the story I thought I'd have a quick look on the internet and see where this money went and the story of the money is very curious...

Clarence House London headquarters of the Duchy of Cornwall
Firstly the Telegraph reports that the income to the Duchy from Cornwall's dead equals £1,019,000 since 2006 (presumbly up to the end of the Duchy's accounting year, probably last year). So where does this small fortune end up? the Duchy's website was my first port of call and reveals that:

Over the last seven years, The Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund has donated nearly £800,000 to a wide range of organisations and much of the funding goes towards charitable projects which help the environment, conservation, wildlife, community projects and the advancement of art, religion and education. 

Duchy of Cornwall: Bona Vacantia and the Duke of Cornwall's benevolent fund

Now I am completely confused at this, the period that the Telegraph reported was from 2006 to some point in 2011 was 5 years in this time the Duchy received over 1 million pounds from Bona Vacantia. It is noted that some money is held back in case of claims by rightful heirs to the money/ assets. But still if the Duchy claims £1,000,000 in 5 years then what does it claim in 7? We might presume on average that it earns £200,000 per year therefore over 7 years it ought to claim £1,400,000 which doesn't seem to tally with the £800,000 mentioned as donations on the Duchy's own website and reveals a potential discrepancy of £600,000 of undonated and unaccounted for money. I can't explain where this money goes and the Duchy is such a tight lipped outfit and has always shunned transparency in it's affairs so it is nigh on impossible to delve further.

However charities are perfectly clear and have to publish accounts, so I accessed the Duke of Cornwall's Benevolent Fund on the Charity Commission's website, it reveals the accounts and outlines the spending of the benevolent fund over the last 5 years. The first filed are for the year end June 2011. This table is taken directly from the government's Charity Commission site:

Financial year end (FYE)IncomeSpendingAccounts receivedAnnual Return/Annual Update receivedView
30 Jun 2011£84,996£150,17806 Feb 201206 Feb 2012Accounts
30 Jun 2010£70,928£119,06710 Feb 201110 Feb 2011Accounts
30 Jun 2009£113,252£112,97310 Feb 201010 Feb 2010Accounts
30 Jun 2008£139,316£200,83212 Feb 200912 Feb 2009Accounts
30 Jun 2007£122,252£188,41714 Mar 200814 Mar 2008Accounts

Now again we return to the figure quoted in the Telegraph £1,019,000 for the income of the Duchy from Bona Vacantia over the last 5 years. Adding up the figures in the income column above we get to £530,774, leaving a glaring gap between the 1 million and the published figures of roughly half or exactly £529,725. So where is half of the money going? The picture looks bleaker and that question gets more prescient when we delve into the accounts themselves which reveal that the Benevolent fund gains income from investments and other sources as well as Bona Vacantia. So establishing quite what the black hole is becomes much more difficult and troubling. Where exactly does the money from Cornwall's dead under medieval Bona Vacantia laws go?

Charles Windsor and his bling

As a side note it is very telling that the main beneficiary of donations from the 'benevolent Duke' is charities in his name as Prince of Wales. Topping the donations table in terms of amounts given (see the account pdfs here) every year:

2011 The Prince's Countryside Fund £50,000,
2010 The Prince's Foundation £15,000,
2009  High Moorland Action Group £15,000 and The Prince's Foundation 15,000,
2008 The Prince's Regeneration Trust 105,000,
2007 High Moorland Action Group £100,000

Cornish causes and charities are very much further down the list in terms of sums donated.


  1. Hi Rob, as I understood it the proceeds that are given to the Duchy through Bona Vacantia are retained by the Duchy as capital. Then the interest earned from these holdings is passed on to the benevolent fund.

    This might explain the difference? This is because the Duke is not supposed to use the capital of the Duchy which is always then passed on to subsequent Dukes.

    However the income from the Duchy is the Duke's to do with as he sees fit and it is a good PR exercise to use these relatively small sums (in relation to the Duchy's income of approx £20 million each year) to donate to the benevolent fund.

    Of course all of this just goes to show that Cornwall is certainly not the same as England!

  2. Pur dha dhys! Very nice blog Rob. It's interesting to note that groups like Republic are getting their knickers in a knot about DoC revenues being given back to the country (England), when it should be going back to Kernow only. As we see from your investigation, it's not really coming back in any decent amounts at all! It is also interesting that people are waking up to Bona Vacantia and Kernow at last. Seems, sometimes they'll only believe it when it's in the newspapers...!

  3. It is his after all, it takes 12 years for the estates and money to become the duchies. Same rules apply to them as the rest of the country.

    1. Is it his! Is it really ??? go do your homework anon

  4. I am not really sure what you are getting at Anonymous? I think you mean that inheritances take a while to be transferred. I doubt that the same rules do apply, for example I don't imagine Charles Windsor pays inheritance tax on Bona Vacantia, certainly there's no record if he does.

    An Helghyer, thanks for the kind comments. You are definitely right about newspaper coverage increasing awareness. I can think of more than a few intelligent and well informed people that were surprised to hear that Bona Vacantia assets pass to the government in England and the Duchy in Cornwall. The amount is returned is really pitiful, some really great Cornish causes but often just £1,000 donations nothing in the scope of the donations to Charle's charities.

    Stephen that may well be the case and apologies for not being clearer. What I meant to include but neglected to was the text from the Duchy's own website which states:

    "Under bona vacantia, the estate of a person who dies in Cornwall with no will or surviving relatives passes to the Duchy of Cornwall. However, His Royal Highness chooses to donate all monies from bona vacantia remaining after discretionary payments have been made to the Duke of Cornwall’s Benevolent Fund which he established in 1975 to benefit local communities in the South West of England."

    By my understanding and the figures I saw and blogged about it is not clear that all monies from bona vacantia are donated to the benevolent fund.

  5. Rob my point is, that for Prince Chalres to get the estates or money via Bon Vacantia it can take up to 12 years. And that the same rules for Bon Vanctia apply to the duchies like the do to the rest of the country. No one pays inheritance tax on Bona Vacantia unless there is someone clamining it and it is over a certain vaule.

  6. Thanks for sharing this.It's an interesting topic to discuss.Bona Vacantia is controversial.