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Here we provide a suggested code of practice for public authorities when dealing with intestacies that occur within their jurisdiction.


1. Overarching principles

While fulfilling its statutory duties concerning public health funerals under Section 46 of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, the Authority is committed to maintaining the highest degree of integrity in all dealings that relate to the assets and beneficiaries of the estates of those who die intestate, and with no known relatives.

2. Referral to the Bona Vacantia Division or Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster

2.1 Where there is no evidence of living next of kin amongst the personal effects of the deceased person, or from information already in the Authority’s possession, the intestacy will immediately be referred to the Government Legal Department Bona Vacantia Division (BVD) or the Duchies, as appropriate.

Bearing in mind that the BVD has issued warnings about copycat websites designed to intercept referrals, care will be taken to refer the intestacy to the correct authority.

2.2 BVD advice on referring an estate to the Treasury Solicitor can be found here.

3. Undertaking some of the functions of the BVD or Duchies of Cornwall or Lancaster

3.1 If the BVD or Duchies do not permit a referral, the Authority will undertake some of the functions that the BVD or Duchies perform when they receive a referral. To this end, the Authority will ensure that its staff have the necessary skills, knowledge and resources, as set out in sections 4-7 below.

3.2 The Authority will:

  • either appoint a panel of three accredited genealogists (using appropriate procedures) to locate next of kin, with all being provided with identical information simultaneously;
  • or publish the name and date of death of the deceased person on its website in such a way as to allow multiple genealogists to search for next of kin. In this case, the Authority may also choose to appoint a sole genealogist or probate research firm, provided that they are not supplied with information in advance of the publication of the name and date of death of the deceased.

4. Knowledge and understanding required by handling officers

4.1 To ensure that officers understand the need for confidentiality, and are able to identify risks arising from the improper use of information, the Authority will provide suitable training for any of its staff who:

  • deal with information about intestate deaths, and the assets of such persons;
  • are involved in the Authority’s decision-making processes in relation to such deaths and assets.

4.2 If the Authority decides to undertake some of the functions otherwise performed by the BVD or Duchies, it will ensure that staff who are involved in assessing claims of kinship possess the necessary skills and knowledge to analyse the evidence needed to verify such claims. They should receive training in, and have demonstrable knowledge and understanding of, the laws of intestate succession and possess skill in interpreting genealogical and evidential material.

5. Record keeping

5.1 The Authority will document each stage of its actions in relation to the estates of those who die intestate with no known next of kin.

5.2 The Authority will maintain a written record of any contact made with house clearance contractors, valuers or auction houses. It will avoid providing any details of the deceased before the contractor signs a binding confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement. The contractor should certify that they have no business dealings with any heir hunter or genealogist.

5.3 The Authority will maintain a register or log of time spent by its officers in dealing with such estates. This will clearly describe the nature of the activity or task carried out.

5.4 Any discussion that takes place with a third party about locating potential relatives of the deceased will be clearly recorded and described as such, together with a note of the relevant officer’s time spent on these discussions.

5.5 Bearing in mind procurement and competition regulations, the Authority will record any decision made:

  • to instruct a single agent or organisation to locate the deceased’s next of kin;
  • to pass details of the deceased or the deceased’s estate to a single agent or organisation.

The record entry will be accompanied by a risk/benefit assessment (which may relate to the likely value of the estate), and set out the reasons:

  • why only one agent or organisation has been instructed or supplied with such details;
  • why the authority has chosen to instruct, or pass details to, the agent or organisation in question (where the absence of cost to the Authority is not a relevant factor) and what checks have been done of their accreditations as genealogists or any legal or other relevant professional qualifications of the agent or their staff.

5.6 The Authority will assess the lawfulness of any payment it makes to a third party agent who locates, or seeks to locate, a relative or relatives of the deceased. This payment will be recorded separately from payments that relate to the deceased’s funeral on the basis that any such costs fall outside the provisions of section 46(5) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.

5.7 The Authority will keep a record of any payments made to it by any third party agent who locates, or seeks to locate, a relative of the deceased.

6 Protecting the deceased’s assets and avoiding conflicts of interest

6.1 At all stages of the decision-making process, the preservation of the deceased’s assets will take precedence over organisational and personal interests.

6.2 Information about the deceased and his/her assets will be kept confidential and secure, with access to and use of such information limited to trained staff who have signed a declaration covering their obligations under this code.

6.3 For the purposes of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, information about the death of deceased persons is exempt information until a week after the details of the death have been referred to the BVD or the Duchies. In cases where the Authority decides to undertake some of the functions otherwise performed by the BVD or Duchies, the full name and date of death of the deceased can be openly published on the Authority’s own website (provided that the Authority employs officers who have demonstrable skill and expertise in evaluating kinship claims).

6.4 When publishing the full name and date of death of the deceased, the Authority will try to replicate the practice and procedures adopted by the BVD.

6.5 Information about the assets of the deceased is always exempt information for the purpose of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Such data will be stored on limited-access servers, password-protected databases or in locked storage facilities.

6.6 Members of staff and contractors who handle such confidential data will sign a confidentiality or non-disclosure agreement or have a confidentiality clause in their contract of employment.

6.7 Actual conflicts of interests, which are interests likely to prejudice a staff member’s exercise of their function, are prohibited. They cannot be managed. Only potential conflicts of interest can be managed, and the Authority will be vigilant in ensuring that these are identified and avoided.

7. Managing risks

7.1 The Authority will consider potential conflicts of interest in relation to the roles, responsibilities and duties of its staff. It will develop procedures to monitor and manage those risks.

7.2 The Authority will put in place systems for making an objective assessment of the benefits and risks of passing details of estates to any third parties.

7.3 The Authority will produce guidance for officers who are involved in deaths in the community in any capacity whatsoever (including front-line officers in residential settings or in the community) and explain:

  • the requirement of confidentiality under this code of practice;
  • the risks referred to in this code of practice.

7.4 The Authority will implement controls to ensure that individuals do not abuse the trust placed in them for personal gain. It will produce and publish a policy describing such controls, including procedures for reporting, investigating and dealing with suspected abuses of trust.

7.5 The Authority will ensure that managerial separation exists between staff responsible for arrangement of the funeral and those dealing with estate assets.


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